On adaptations, anthologies, shared worlds, and the R.L. Stine-themed CGI collage Goosebumps gives us instead
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween Columbia Pictures
Director: Ari Sandel
Screenplay: Rob Lieber, based on the book series by R.L. Stine
Starring: Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Wendy McLendon-Covey, Mick Wingert, Peyton Wich, Bryce Cass, Ken Jeong, Chris Parnell and Jack Black
Rated PG / 1 hour, 30 minutes / 2.39:1
October 12, 2018
(out of four)
According to his website, R.L. Stine has written more than 330 books to date. There were 62 books in the original Goosebumps series. Another 171 titles have been released under various ancillary Goosebumps labels. That's hundreds of stories and thousands of characters to choose from, in the event of a big-screen adaptation.
One may have been enough.
2015's Goosebumps and its sequel Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween have taken the volume approach to adapting the juggernaut book franchise. The more creatures and supernatural beings they can cram into any scene, or any frame, the better. There's a method to that, I suppose. But there are moments during Haunted Halloween - particularly during its opening half - that offer a glimpse of a simpler, more disciplined, more playful movie. The kind of movie that could introduce, and follow through on, a single premise without succumbing to the temptation to throw the CGI kitchen sink onto the screen. An actual spooky story instead of the glorified collage we got instead.
The film gives us a promising enough start once it introduces - or re-introduces - the evil ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Jack Black vocal doppelgänger Mick Wingert), who gets brought back to life by a couple of unsuspecting boys who're just trying to clear out some old junk from a neighbor's attic. Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris) take Slappy home only to discover their new toy's sentient powers. At first, these powers are used for good - humiliating the school bully, getting back at the prick who cheated on Sonny's sister Sarah (Madison Iseman) - and thus Slappy begins to ingratiate himself as a member of the family. But he has grander designs, and more omnipotent powers, than he initially lets on.
That right there is enough for a movie - the unusually helpful houseguest (who just happens to be an anthropomorphized puppet) with secretly sinister intentions. From creepy benevolent protector to all-powerful madman. But Haunted Halloween doesn't have faith in its own premise. The filmmakers go halfway with it; Slappy's infiltration of this happy suburban family certainly drives the narrative. It's the starting point for everything. But instead of building the story entirely around that character and his adopted family, the movie uses it as a launchpad to diverge into an extended special-effects display that's more distraction than payoff. In effect, Haunted Halloween uses its premise as an excuse to show off its budget.
That strategy is basically a creative rehash of the first movie's aesthetic, which is a clear enough signal - assuming this weren't already implicit - that this is simply what the studio wants out of a Goosebumps adaptation: A bunch of special effects tied loosely together. But big-picture, this seems like a curious application of the franchise's available resources. With all of those books - all of Stine's many inventions and characters and plots - just throwing a whole bunch of them into one movie (or two) seems like sort of a waste, doesn't it?
I don't know for sure the best way to deal with large quantities of source material, but using it up all at once seems like a self-defeating strategy. Consider what Hulu's Castle Rock has done with Stephen King's work, bringing various concepts, stories, characters and locations into a shared world with an episodic format. Or what Once Upon a Time has done with its collection of fairy tales. I realize these counterexamples are both television, but ... well, maybe I should let that fact speak for itself. In any case, I can't imagine why cinema needs yet another crowded CGI-fest like this; but I can imagine an anthology series that adapts individual Stine stories that would be more fulfilling than the cheap (if harmless) excess these movies have to offer. Look at the massive popularity of Stranger Things - what, a version of that for a slightly younger demographic wouldn't work?
As for what director Ari Sandel and screenwriter Rob Lieber have delivered instead, there's a bit of fun with Slappy's early telekinetic hijinks - and the mischievous way he picks and chooses when (and to whom) to reveal his sentience. It's all the additional supernatural characters suddenly showing up that ultimately derails Haunted Halloween.
To the film's credit, the effects are stronger this time around than in its predecessor. But the fantasy characters' improved visual presence can't alleviate their fundamental weakness - that, divorced from their natural narrative context, none of these Stine creations carry much weight. They're just things - flat objects roaming around a suburban neighborhood wreaking havoc. None of them have any identity. What we get is a parade of unused ideas dancing across the screen. The more of them show up, the more the whole spectacle just comes across as white noise.