Heading into my screening of “Goosebumps,” I hoped against hope the Jack Black movie would not ruin the nostalgia I had for the popular book and TV series. They enjoyed a kind of cultural cache on the ‘90s schoolyard as the kind of books parents were reluctant to buy and teachers loathed to see the grotesque covers in their classroom. A TV adaptation (which if you’re in for a scare is available to stream on Netflix) had our equal rapt attention after school.
The premises were deceptively simple: kids would find horror in the benign when mundane objects would turn on them, like garden gnomes, cuckoo clocks and a ventriloquist dummy. Other storylines involved the fantastic: werewolves, mummies and zombies invading a kid’s stay at summer camp or a relative’s house. It’s that kind of boiler plate magic that the movie adaptation “Goosebumps” mocks in a horror comedy meets “The LEGO Movie” level of self-awareness way. A dead-on adaptation just wouldn’t work the same way it did back in its ‘90s heyday.
Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom Gale (Amy Ryan) move to a small town in order to get past the loss of a loved one. Zach hates where they’ve landed, and the cold shoulder from his creepy neighbor (Jack Black) doesn’t make him feel any more welcome. But he finds a friendly face behind his neighbor’s fence, Hannah (Odeya Rush), and tries to understand why her father keeps her hidden. Before Zach can solve that mystery, he and his fearful schoolmate Champ (Ryan Lee) stumble onto R.L. Stine’s manuscripts, which serve as vessels to keep the author’s monsters from seeping out into the real world. Unfortunately for the sleepy hamlet, the monsters want to come out and play.
In credit to the film’s creativity, it doesn’t copy the low budget horror camp aesthetic from the TV series or faithfully adapt any one story from the books. Instead, it’s a comedic remix filled with references to several of Stine’s tales and various horror classics. At one point, the town’s inept police force of two discuss the 1958 Steve McQueen movie, “The Blob.” Later, when the weird neighbor, who turns out to be the (movie version) writer R.L. Stine, is looking for a safe spot to write, he runs into the school production of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
Sure, it has the type of mild gross humor suited for kids, but it folds in enough cultural references like bedazzling, Instagram selfies and twerking to ground the story to the present day and give the grownups a chance to laugh at the times we live in. There are many self-aware references to the formulaic construction of “Goosebumps” stories, including the plot twist and the hero’s journey to learn a life lesson. There’s room in the script to bring up Stine’s book sales ($400 million worldwide) and squeeze in a Stephen King diss in between escaping a 50-foot praying mantis and running away from a werewolf in basketball shorts.
Frequent Jack Black collaborator director Rob Letterman (“A Shark’s Tale”) keeps up the pace with a string of chase sequences through the town, grocery store and bear trap-ridden basement. Letterman even fits in a brief mention of his last live-action collaboration with his star, the ill-fated “Gulliver’s Travels.” Black’s manic energy is a perfect match for the kids’ wily adventure, and he balances out the personal strife of a writer’s lonely existence with energetic outbursts. While Black’s played plenty of outcasts through the years, it’s his first role in a kid’s movie where he gets to channel his inner weirdo. I hope the real R.L. Stine approves.
For a movie I was afraid to watch, “Goosebumps” thrilled with every horror movie shoutout and book reference. (Fans will want to keep a sharp eye out for a man in a black coat and briefcase towards the end of the movie.) With Letterman and Black stamping the source material with their mark, they’ve given the movie a chance to have a life of its own. Viewers aren’t required to get every in-joke to enjoy the sentimental yet spooky high school love story or creepy monster bonanza. “Goosebumps” is a pleasant reminder it’s best not to judge a book by its cover.
“Goosebumps” opens in theaters Friday.