Starring: Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor
Director: Ari Sandel
Genre: Horror Comedy
RUNTIME: 90 Mins
There are the makings of a spooky, kid-friendly classic buried somewhere within Ari Sandel's Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. It is a film that features, among its many monsters, a werewolf, a yeti, a cackling ventriloquist dummy, a trio of truly terrifying witch creatures, a gigantic spider, and an army of killer gummi bears (that can mash their bodies together into giant bear monsters before swallowing children whole).
There are ghosts, goblins, a headless horseman, and, of course, a flock of flying pumpkins.
So eager is Goosebumps 2 to get to its spooktacular monster mash that it regrettably hastens past such trivial cinematic necessities as characterisation and establishing a mood in its own opening act.
Acknowledging that it is a comedic film for younger kids, Goosebumps 2 still feels unduly impatient and, sadly, results in a case of new cast, old ideas.
Rob Letterman's 2015 surprise success featured a novel premise: R.L. Stine, the original author of the Goosebumps novels, appears in the film to explain that his horror stories are literally contained in his books, and opening those books unleashes the monsters into the real world.
The climax of that film featured Stine (played by Jack Black) writing the ending to the story as monsters tried to break in from outside. It was a fun meta-narrative about the relationship between an author and his own dark creations. Not terribly complex, of course, but clever.
In this sequel, the tale is disappointingly straightforward. Two young boys in their early teens named Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam (Caleel Harris) find a mysterious chest in an abandoned house. Inside is a book. When opened, the book manifests Slappy (voiced by Mick Wingert) the aforementioned living ventriloquist dummy, and villain from the previous film.
Slappy explains that he can use magical animation powers to make the kids' dreams come true, but that he is also driven by a lust for violence. For example, Slappy gleefully injures a student who disses Sonny's older sister Sarah (Madison Iseman).
However, it isn't long before Slappy, embittered by the children's eventual rejection, walks into a shop and brings all of the Halloween paraphernalia to life. This will be a prologue to a Halloween night wherein the entirety of the city's spooky Halloween decorations will begin marauding in earnest.
There is a lot to admire about Goosebumps 2. The cast is dedicated and appealing. Taylor is a very natural actor, who shows a great deal of promise and he has great chemistry with Harris, a person who actually feels like a best friend, and not like an actor he met on set that morning. Iseman is a capable enough heroine, although her character's drama feels like typical teen melodrama.
But overall, the film's actual personality feels slight. Its tone is jaunty, but it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny. No doubt, this is due to the absence of Black who always brings his own inimitable brand of humour to proceedings.
The Halloween iconography is wonderfully employed -- I was especially fond of the globe-headed witches and of a living pumpkin-headed scarecrow with glowing pumpkin guts inside its insidious maw -- but it's rarely actually ... you know ... scary.
Although Goosebumps 2 (like the first) openly discusses the power of horror stories and how they tend to operate as expressions of an author's inner fears, one may never actually feel any fear while watching it.
Ironically, this may be the point. Stine's Goosebumps novels were typically devoid of death and violence, never featured drugs or real-life depravity, and, at Stine's own admission, never featured a moral or a lesson.
While this can make for a horror entertainment that is widely accessible to children, it does rob a film adaptation of some necessary edge; when the stakes are never high, the film is never scary. It is fun in stretches, and the climax is capable and exciting, but Goosebumps 2 will let you turn the light out before going to bed.
Overall, the Halloween elements are strong and the cast is excellent, but Goosebumps 2 is in far too much of a hurry -- and perhaps too eager to be widely accessible -- to be actually scary or wholly effective.
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Kristian's verdict: 3/5
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