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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween has a similar structure to the original film from 2015, but lacks its wit and invention.  In that film, a bunch of monsters taken from the series of children horror novels by R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black, who makes a brief return here, and honestly this movie could have used more of him) came to life and attacked a town.  This time, a town gets attacked by Halloween decorations that come to life.  Not quite as fun, you have to admit.  The monsters here lack the personality and charm that the first one had, and basically come across as rampaging special effects, rather than genuine characters.

In all honesty, the effects are very good, and some are even clever.  I especially liked the giant spider made out of balloons that comes to life, and starts menacing screaming trick-or-treaters.  All the pieces seem to be in place here for a rollicking kid's adventure story set at Halloween.  But a key element that made the original Goosebumps movie so much fun is missing, and that element is Jack Black as Stine.  When he does show up, the movie manages to capture some of the humor from before.  The one moment in the film I truly laughed at is when Stine sees the Halloween monsters come to life from an unfinished manuscript he wrote over 30 years ago, and all he can say to himself at the sight of the various creatures is, "I can't believe how cliche my writing was back then!".  Stine was a main character in the last one, and here he's basically been reduced to a cameo.  It's a shame, because just from his brief screen time, you can tell he could have livened things up considerably.

Instead of Stine, our heroes this time are a pair of misfit teens who are best friends, Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor, who appeared in last year's horror blockbuster It) and Sam (Caleel Harris).  They uncover Stine's lost manuscript book in a secret hideaway room of an abandoned house, and when they open the book and read from it, they happen to summon the lead monster and main nemesis of the Goosebumps Universe, a living and malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy named Slappy (voice by Mick Wingert).  Slappy at first befriends the two kids, and tells them he just wants to be a part of their family.  He even helps the kids out with their encounters with the school bully and with Sonny's science experiment related to Nikola Tesla.  But the two friends and Sonny's sister Sarah (Madison Iseman) quickly catch on that the dummy has evil intentions when it turns out that the little guy wants a family of monsters, and uses his inherent magical powers to create an army of living Halloween costumes, lawn ornaments and even candy, as demonstrated in an inventive sequence where the two boys are attacked by a slew of gummy bears who can join together to grow to massive size. 

As the cast of monsters increased and started wreaking havoc on the townspeople, I found myself admiring the craft more than the actual content.  The various witches, ghosts, giant spiders and gremlins have been brought to life with some very good CG, and even a surprising amount of physical make up effects.  Every creature that seems to fill the screen have been made with a lot of care and attention to detail, but the screenplay by Rob Lieber (Peter Rabbit) can never seem to get a grasp on the playful mix of humor and kid-friendly horror that the original so expertly accomplished.  Even Slappy himself, who was the main villain of the last film as well, and sometimes comes across as a PG-rated take on the infamous Chucky doll, doesn't seem quite as menacing as he did before.  Again, this might be due to the lack of presence of Jack Black, who voiced the character in the earlier film, but did not return to the role for whatever reason.

In the end, Goosebumps 2 simply feels watered down.  It still has some fun moments, and I'm sure kids looking for a simple thrill will be happy with what they've been given.  But it can't help but feel like diminished returns.  It has the right idea, but not the confidence to pull it off.  The ending hints at a third movie, and I can only hope it finds the confidence that the franchise had before.

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