Jack Black’s performance in Goosebumps as a fictionalized version of children’s horror writer R.L. Stine embodies the divided heart of this big-screen translation of Stine’s literary franchise. Black adopts an exaggerated near-lisp as Stine warns his new neighbor, Zach (Dylan Minnette), to stay away from his house and daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush), immediately taking the menace out of the moment. The winking irony evident in such a mannerism has always been the actor’s stock in trade, but he convincingly sells some of his later dramatic scenes in which he’s called on to express shades of regret, even in the maelstrom of action and CGI effects that surround him.
Such a balancing act between knowing snark and emotional sincerity characterizes Goosebumps as a whole, torn as it is between sending up its enormously popular source material and taking its popularity seriously. Director Rob Letterman and screenwriter Darren Lemke, working from a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, aren’t above taking jabs at the derivativeness of Stine’s books, many of which did little more than sanitize horror-movie tropes for a pre-teen audience. Here, Stine occasionally boasts about his success and the speed with which he was able to generate book after book, especially in comparison to that fellow famous horror writer he sneeringly refers to as “Steve King.”
That jokey self-awareness, however, sits alongside plot threads revolving around characters working through past traumas and current anxieties—implicit attempts, perhaps, to account for Goosebumps’s appeal to children. Kids, after all, are the main characters of the books, and many of their frights are rooted in such universal adolescent fears as fitting in at school, dealing with missing parents, and adjusting to life in a new town. Letterman tries to inject his film with a similar sense of anguish, especially when it’s revealed that Zach’s father recently died and that the boy is still coping with the loss.
But the most pointed attempt to instill emotional heft into the material lies in the depiction of Stine himself. The monsters he created were borne out of his outsider status in high school, but at some point these literary creations became so much more real to him than the actual people around him that he was forced to lock them away, lest they sprout up again and intrude on reality—as ultimately happens when Zach and his new friend, Cramp (Ryan Lee), unlock one of Stine’s books and thereby unleash an apocalyptic swarm of Goosebumps characters that threaten to destroy their town.
Goosebumps, then, eventually posits these monsters as an expression of Stine’s own inner demons, with their creator forced to finally face them head-on by writing another story in order to bottle them all back up. Like Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls, this is meta-fictional horror comedy about characters going through hell in order to make peace with the past. But Letterman approaches the task of bringing this best-selling series of books to the big screen by whipping up a frenzy of chaotic excess, not just by throwing in almost all of the monsters R.L. Stine imagined, but by dialing up the special effects and noise to such a degree that some of the wittier one-liners and more affecting emotional moments feel undermined in the process.