The first Goosebumps movie was great. It was fun — and just spooky enough — with enough to keep both kids and adults entertained throughout. As R.L. Stine’s creations came to life to terrorize the town of Madison, Delaware, the film, directed by Rob Letterman, retained enough spark and originality (and nostalgia for Stine’s works) to make it a genuinely good time. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween comes across as an attempt to replicate the formula, and not necessarily in a good way.
This time around, our young heroes are Sonny (It’s Jeremy Ray Taylor), his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), and Sonny’s older sister Sarah (Madison Iseman), whose struggle with her college application essay is a source of horror in and of itself. Sonny and Sam, in their attempt to start a junk removal business, find themselves at R.L. Stine’s old house. For the most part, all that’s left is cobwebs, but a chance misstep leads them to a locked book — and, springing from its pages, Slappy the Ventriloquist Dummy.
As it turns out, Slappy wants a family, and in order to ingratiate himself with his new brothers and sister, starts using his powers to make their lives a little easier. He foils the bullies coming after Sonny and Sam, and even knocks the wind out of Sarah’s cheating boyfriend. However, it quickly becomes clear that Slappy is maybe a little too happy to cause chaos.
There are a few other monsters out and about once Slappy gets things going, but none that really fill out the cast in the way that the first Goosebumps’ monsters did. Several of them are Goosebumps stalwarts, but this is ultimately Slappy’s story, which is good in that Slappy’s raison d’être is demented in quite a fun way, but bad in that the lack of characterization for the rest of the monsters makes the film feel thin.
The ending of the film in particular feels like painting by numbers, a sensation given physical shape by Jack Black’s cameo. Black, who played a fictionalized version of R.L. Stine in the first movie, reprises his role here to lesser effect. It almost feels like he’s in the film solely to set up for a possible sequel, as his part here mostly amounts to popping up, as if just to establish that this movie takes place in the same universe. The unintended side effect of his flitting in and out is making it difficult not to wonder just what Goosebumps 2 would be like if it were more of a direct sequel. It’d have to follow at least a slightly different narrative template, right? Especially since Stine’s reclusive habits seem to have kicked into high gear since the last time we saw him.
There are several other moments in the film that birth similar tangents, including a scene involving sentient gummy bears, as well as Chris Parnell’s performance as a store manager unfortunate enough to get in Slappy’s way that turns into such a strange bit of prosthetic acting that he could pass for a Scooby-Doo villain. There’s also a neat reversal in usual gender roles, as Sarah becomes the one to take on the action sequences, shoving the more pedantic, book-related work at her brother while she battles monsters.
The film finds additional charm in the work put into bringing Slappy to life — there’s an appealingly jerky and angular quality to the way that he moves that’s in line with his origins as a dummy, and makes him feel infinitely realer than the CGI-soup monsters he summons to aid in his quest to build a family. It helps, too, that the kids feel like kids and not adults playing children (as per Glee) or adults writing what they believe kids sound like.
But, overall, the film is fairly cut and dried. (There’s a little bit of meta commentary on that in the film itself, as Stine notes that these monster break-outs aren’t exactly infrequent, and Ken Jeong shows up as a Goosebumps devotee, citing plot point by plot point.) There’s potential there — the cast is great, the Slappy storyline is appealingly Little Shop of Horrors-esque, and some of the goings-on get genuinely creepy — but Goosebumps 2 is a sophomore slump.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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