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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

GOOSEBUMPS (2015) ~ Jack Black & Odeya Rush star in a howling love letter to the imagination and to the craft of writing (and to lots of nasty and hairy and spooky things that go bump in the night!)


There's really no point trying to blind you with trivia about the new GOOSEBUMPS family-friendly horror movie, as that's clearly a treat best reserved for the most rabid fans of author R. L. Stine's frightfully freaky books, of which there are many (fans and books!). And they know it all anyway. Throughout this movie version of the print saga you will get to see a whole demonic army's worth of creepy monsters from Stine's back catalogue, often in glimpse-or-you'll-miss-'em moments. But if you are a true fan, then I'm sure you will also be leafing through those cobwebby out-of-print first editions you've collected over the years and checking all your favourite book covers while pausing this film (when you buy it on home video) - just to see which cool monsters you didn't spot at the cinema!

Stine's horror books always bring a sense of magic and a thrill of excitement and surprise about the ordinary world around us - a world made extraordinary and always pleasingly scary or downright disgusting (fans often cite one favourite book that has a mask attach itself to the face of its victims and melt across their features - the mask, sadly, nowhere to be seen in this movie, unless I missed it!). Stine is a bestselling and much-loved author of teen, and under, horror fiction, and his reputation as the younger reader's Stephen King is often playfully referenced throughout the new movie.

Over the years, these books have had enough TV shows and print spin-offs to start up their own graveyard. Stine likes to include as many weird and wonderful spooks, creatures, ghosts and plain bonkers things in his books as he can fit (ferocious floating poodles and deadly garden gnomes spring to mind!). His advice to all budding authors is to read as much as you can - because that's what he does. It helps that the man with a boy's heart also loves to visit places like Disneyland or watch TV shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and can easily tune-in to the things that scare the life of younger (and often much older) readers and fans.

The plot of this first ever big screen bringing to life of the Stine characters has Jack Black playing the author himself, a man in some deep water who has - thanks to some interfering local kids as well as his own daughter - had the secret book that keeps the monsters contained within the pages of his bestselling novels (instead of running rampant in the world outside) opened and re-opened by a malevolent (yeah - I'm going to say it, because this evil wooden creep hates the word so much) - dummy! Yeah - you! DUMMY!

It's a great postmodern hook, to have Stine as the anti-hero and his creations tormenting their creator, but it's also quite dark - there's a reference by that aforementioned ventriloquist dummy (and head horror honcho) known affectionately as 'Slappy', to the fact that being kept in a kind of perpetual isolation of the imagination is close to 'horror icon cruelty' and worthy of a quick call to social services. You can't help but agree with Slappy, even if just a little bit. But then again, cancel that thought - this evil little wooden git deserves all he gets by the end of this movie (and hopefully a bad case of woodworm).

Slappy is creepily voiced in a predatory, dignified dulcet drawl by Jack Black himself. The appearance of many other well-known Stine supercreeps such as the Abominable Snowman, Invisible Boy and Werewolf shine brilliantly in their respective and pleasingly reverent showpieces. Especially thrilling is a sequence involving the Werewolf up to mischief in a local supermarket and Invisible Boy too, certainly delivers extra chills through his unexpected and sudden appearances  (despite being the least SFX-fuelled - just the odd greasy handprint on a car windscreen is enough to jolt the blood here).

Giving away too much more will ruin the surprises throughout this often fast-moving, but never rushed film. A thrilling abandoned funfair starts everything off with languid, coloured bulb-lit romantic escape and a sense of beautiful moonlit decay. Cinematography from Javier Aguirresarobe (oops - just killed spellcheck!) who has worked on some truly iconic films, from TALK TO HER to GOYA's GHOSTS as well as terrific horrors like LA LUNA NEGRA (1989) has a delightful mastery of night scenes, adding delicious gloom, instead of deadening darkness - equally at ease wallowing in bright light as he is skulking in the shadows. The aforementioned werewolf sequence, shot with neon green sickly glare is vivid and to be relished.

Special effects are unexpectedly unobtrusive. You will seamlessly believe a Giant Praying Mantis can crunch up its victims (or munch on cars) without having to think too much about what a great (and quite retro) effect the Mantis and all the other monsters are - they mimic the creatures on the front covers of Stine's books perfectly, with little need of an upgrade, and become instantly familiar faces. There is also clear homage to classic b-movies throughout the film that will be of interest to older fans of the genre - a snippet of script from the 1958 version of THE BLOB and a glimpse of a stage set for King's THE SHINING both make welcome appearances.

Direction is oozy and fluid and suitably feverish (from MONSTERS VS. ALIENS man Rob Letterman) when being chased by monsters, but the action is also kept pleasingly contained within a small town setting where everyone knows your name and where no one believes you for a second when you tell them there's a killer gnome in the kitchen cabinet - or a giant praying mantis approaching the school hall.

Letterman also knows when to slow the action down and go in for a rather more languid kill, noticeably in the sequences set at the abandoned fairground or inside the Stine house itself. These quieter moments only last as long as they need to, and never detract from the onslaught of special guest ghoulies from the Stine back catalogue. But even those monster show-stopping attacks are razor sharp restrained and carefully chaotic. Nothing seems hurried or flippant.

The 3D effects are good, if not essential - a hellish drop of snot dripping out of the screen is brilliantly icky. When the deadly gnomes get fighting and smashing themselves (and everything else in sight) up, we genuinely fear for our eyes, if watching in 3D. These gnomes, and the kitchen sequence, may reference the sick humour of GREMLINS, especially the memory of one little green beastie popping away in the microwave (but just see what the beardy little folk get instead) and I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like the Gnome Alone battle between human and ceramic that we get here - Joe Dante himself must be smiling!

A knife-throwing gnome shot appears to have been excised on advice from the BBFC to secure a PG certificate. But it's a traumatic enough experience already. I mean, who doesn't love garden gnomes - right? Seeing them smashed to bits by Jack Black is akin to watching THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE for the first time, in a PG rating!

There's a nicely sly and witty script in place for this GOOSEBUMPS big screen imagining that has an alchemic concoction full of family-friendly comedy pedigree from scriptwriter Darren Lemke (SHREK FOREVER AFTER) and a quite subversive, downbeat and mischievous original story idea from writing duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (MAN IN THE MOON, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and, far more importantly - the evil PROBLEM CHILD trilogy!).

Whoever gave the story reins (to be based, of course, on Stine's famous creations) to this unlikely assemblage of eclectic writers, deserves a badge of genius. It creates the most perfect explosion of zany comedy and dark, almost poetic horror on screen since Dante's GREMLINS. Or even Dante's INFERNO (that inspired - wonderfully - the unforgettably disturbing conclusion to Disney's own THE BLACK HOLE in 1979). The sparks in this taut, nostalgic and often playfully spiteful script really do fly.

All the (mostly) young cast are terrific throughout. The lead nosey teen and newbie in the neighbourhood goes to Dylan Minnette as Zach. He also appeared in R. L. Stine's TV series THE HAUNTING HOUR from a few years back, and is a charismatic and suitably wide-eyed lead - look out for Dylan in this year's more adult blind man's bluff horror A MAN IN THE DARK.

Jack Black of course is perfectly cast as Stine (the author himself also appears in a brief cameo) - part-deranged and part-endearing (I wouldn't go anywhere near him though, whichever mood he was in!). But this film really belongs to its supporting cast, especially the feisty Odeya Rush (who has already graced one of the most elegant of horror movies in the outstanding remake of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE) and in GOOSEBUMPS she captivates attention while kicking monster butt with sweet perfection as Stine's mysterious daughter Hannah (and regulatory love interest for Zach) who always seems to shine brightest when the moon is full (don't worry - she's no werewolf, I'm just adding a quick red herring to this review for the sake of it!).

From her very first scenes in the shadows behind the houses, putting out the trash before leading Zach astray in the nearby haunted woods, this rising star oozes traditional horror-movie gosh and glee. Watch out for Odeya in this year's 'teen girl teams up with her assassin for payback' thriller - HUNTER'S PRAYER.

There's also a bubbly, deeply dippy comic turn from Jillian Bell as lovestruck babysitter Lorraine. She's also (believe it or not) Stine's love interest as well as an accidental fearless werewolf killer under threat from a demonic poodle (uh-huh, you heard all that right!). Also putting in a fearfully good turn is Halston Sage (SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE/ PAPER TOWNS) as a pretty cheerleader-type about to be werewolf lunch.


Perhaps the film's standout role, alongside Odeya Rush, goes to another former cast member of Stine's HAUNTING HOUR - Ryan Lee, who stars as Zach's hapless but cocky new friend 'Champ'.
This young man comes ill-fittingly dressed in a ridiculous shiny suit just to impress the ladies, and actually - in quite a subversive way - gets the girl after bragging about how he has the best amalgam fillings in town (perfect for killing monsters with) after deliberately not brushing his teeth for a whole year! In any other movie apart from this one, the supporting clumsy kid would have designer dental metal braces to brag about, and go on a personal journey to come to terms with them - "Hey look - my new braces kill monsters so I'm not a dork after all!"


And that's the thing with Stine's books. They are meant, as we are told by Black's film character version of the author, to scare and thrill and all that - but also to end in some kind of personal attainment for the characters at the heart of all these creepy tales. The film focuses on the process of writing a great deal in the countdown to the final conflict between monster and human on the top of a rusty old ferris wheel, and clearly revels in the idea that horror stories can be as real as anything else in the world around us - that once a character is created, it can never really be lost.

GOOSEBUMPS is a funny, thrilling, enjoyably frightening feast for the (wild and wolf-like) eyes and (oddly pointy) ears of creepy kids everywhere and their (robot or alien) parents too! It's a good enough film to swiftly kill off even the most cynical detractor of youthful populist horror fiction with its genre-loving and defiantly revisionist charm. If you love horror, and it doesn't matter what age you are - you will love all this chaotic and reverent monster mashing. For me, it reminded of all those old Universal black and white gatherings of famous monsters in the castle or in underground caverns. Even more so - those deliciously creepy and silly old Abbott and Costello flicks where they get to meet the Wolfman or the Mummy, and live.

As a paean to wild and delirious storytelling, to old-fashioned and new-fashioned monsters, and to love, sadness, and loss, GOOSEBUMPS never fails to give you fear most. It never fails to remind you that every lonely wood out there, is never just a wood - it will be hiding abandoned funfairs and fearsome ghosts and ghouls. And giant blobs of jelly and levitating demonic poodles . .




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