Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Goosebumps (Columbia Pictures, Sony Animation, Expedition Films, LStar Capital, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched one of the most delightful recent movies I’ve seen lately: Goosebumps, a 2015 production directed by Rob Letterman based on a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo who wrote the film Ed Wood) worked into a screenplay by Darren Lemke. Goosebumps began as a seemingly endless series of young-adult horror novels by Robert Lawrence Stine, who signed them with his initials — R. L. Stine — and who cranked out so many of them (25 in the Goosebumps series, plus 42 in the Give Yourself Goosebumps series and eight more in a series called Give Yourself Goosebumps Special Edition — and that’s only a fraction of his total output) they ironically posed a problem for potential movie adapters: which Goosebumps story do you film? The solution Messrs. Alexander, Karaszewski, Lemke and Letterman hit on was to make it metafictional, work R. L. Stine into the story as a key character (played by Jack Black) and create a fictional device that would allow them to use all of the monster characters from the Goosebumps novels — or at least all the ones they wanted — in the film. A widow named Gale (Amy Ryan) moves herself and her son Zach (Dylan Minnette, one of those actors who isn’t drop-dead gorgeous but is cute and easy on the eyes) to the small town of Madison, Delaware. She’s got a job as assistant principal of Madison High School and she insists on driving her high-school-age son to school his first day and even using her car’s automatic door locks to ensure he can’t leave the car before she does. (Eventually she relents and gives him one minute on his own — which she counts down.) Gale has a crazy sister, Lorraine (Jillian Bell), depicted as an aging hippie who didn’t get the memo that the 1960’s were over, who also turns up in town. for its first half-hour or so Goosebumps looks like a pretty standard-issue alienated high-school student movie and one might wonder what its connection was to a series of cheap young-adult horror novels (which, at the series’ height in the 1990’s, were so ubiquitous you could barely get into a supermarket check-out line without tripping over a display of them). It turns out that Gale and Zach have a mysterious next-door neighbor who has surrounded his house with a fence and issues Zach a strong warning that he is never to cross the fence, and especially that his not to attempt to see or date his daughter Hannah (a nicely wistful performance by Odeya Rush) … or else.

The neighbor is, of course, Goosebumps author R. L. Stine, and the gimmick that kicks off the movie is that the monsters depicted in the Goosebumps books are real, and only by putting locks on his bound original manuscripts and keeping them in his home has Stine kept the monsters from escaping and wreaking havoc on Madison (and, presumably, the rest of the world after that). Of course, the inevitable happens: Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee) — the name is short for “Champion” and of course is the object of derision from other students (“Who has a name like ‘Champ’?” one of them asks — though I can think of at least one prominent person named Champ: Champ Clark, who in 1912 was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Woodrow Wilson’s principal rival for the Democratic nomination for President that year — Charles guessed that Champ’s first name was short for “Champlain” but it was really an abbreviation of his middle name: his full name was James Beauchamp Clark) — sneak into Stine’s home, grab one of the manuscripts from his shelf and open it. Immediately the monster trapped inside it, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena (the fact that the existence of the abominable snowman is attributed to snowless Pasadena is an example of the camp spirit behind Stine’s books), escapes and knocks all the other books to the floor, opening one and releasing a particularly nasty ventriloquist’s dummy who becomes the film’s principal villain. He releases all the other monsters from their books and burns the manuscripts so they can’t be trapped in them again, and for the film’s remaining hour the monsters — including such ripoffs from 1950’s films as a blob and a giant-sized praying mantis, as well as a series of malevolent little china elves and various other picturesque menaces — rampage through Madison while Our Heroes figure out how to stop them. It seems the only way the rampage will end is if they can prevail on R. L. Stine to write a new Goosebumps book in which they all die, whereupon they will instantly be summoned back into the manuscript and get locked up in it again.

At first Zach offers to set Stine up on a computer, but Stine protests that the magic will work only if he writes his new novel on the same old Smith-Corona typewriter on which he wrote originally — which is in a display case at Madison High School. Stine eventually more or less finishes the book — though Zach has to type the last few pages to Stine’s dictation after one of the monsters breaks Stine’s fingers — and the climax takes place on a Ferris wheel in an abandoned amusement park (abandoned before it was even finished because the developers ran out of money, though the place is still lit so someone is paying its electric bill). The Ferris wheel was set up early in the action when, on one of their early dates, Hannah had Zach climb up it and sit in a car high above the city even though the only way they can get down is to climb back down the way they came up. (The director and writers have a panicked Zach ask, “How are we going to get back down?” Then director Letterman does a jump-cut to them both walking normally on the ground again, without showing us how they did get down.) In the climax, the Ferris wheel goes off its moorings and starts revolving through town with its reluctant passengers still aboard, and it ends after Stine finishes the manuscript and the monsters get sucked back into it (“That book should be buried under a ton of concrete!” said Charles, to which I replied, “What? And blow the possibility of a sequel?”) with R. L. Stine hired by Madison High School as a substitute English teacher. In a nice in-joke he greets “Mr. Black, the new drama teacher” in the school’s hallway — Stine is played by Jack Black and Mr. Black, in a cameo, by the real R. L. Stine — before showing up in class and beginning his lecture: “There are three elements to every story: the beginning, the middle, and … the twist.” Our screenwriters then duly deliver the twist when Stine’s typewriter starts typing, apparently by itself, and a voice announces that there is one Goosebumps monster, the Invisible Boy, who’s still alive because Stine forgot to write him into the last novel.

There’s also a marvelous plot device in which it turns out that Hannah doesn’t really exist — Stine wrote her and thereby conjured her into existence because without someone to love, he was lonely — and Zach has a crisis of conscience at the last minute because closing the book on the monsters will mean closing the book on his girlfriend and making her cease to exist as well — until, in yet another twist (the ending has more twists than a Red Vine!), Stine reveals that he wrote Hannah in a separate book and therefore brings her to life again. Goosebumps is an absolutely marvelous film, to my mind the most literate and genuinely funny horror-comedy since the original Ghostbusters (also a Columbia production, but made before Sony bought the company), to which it owes quite a lot — as it does to The Blob and Night of the Living Dead (Charles noted the deliberate parallel of having a Black man barricade the door when the monsters attack the high school in the middle of a big student dance). Combining horror and comedy would seem like a genre-bending natural, but there have been awfully few great ones: The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935 (and the spoof of it, Young Frankenstein, from 1974), the Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard Ghost Breakers from 1940, maybe a few of the Abbott and Costello “monster” films, the original Ghostbusters … and now Goosebumps, which is essentially the Stranger than Fiction concept applied to spoofing horror and, while not quite on the level of Stranger than Fiction (when I reviewed that movie for my headline read, “Who would have thought Will Ferrell would be in a masterpiece?”), Goosebumps is screamingly funny and the monsters, realized mostly with CGI (Sony Animation is listed as a co-producing company with Columbia Pictures), are kept campily scary rather than truly frightening — which is how this film got a PG rating instead of the PG-13 most horror films aimed at the teenage audience get.