When Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps was released into theaters back in October 2015, a movie I had been waiting for since long before such a movie was even planned, I saw it *three* times on the road to that year’s Halloween. It was not just the perfect Halloween movie but also a thoroughly satisfying Goosebumps feature film, cleverly playing out less like a direct adaptation of R.L. Stine’s work and more like a love letter to his legacy. The film unleashed pretty much all of Stine’s most beloved monsters in one fell swoop with a plot that literally set them free from the pages of Stine’s original manuscripts.
Back in 2015, this lifelong Goosebumps fan had a smile on his face.
On the road to Halloween 2018, well, not so much.
Three years later, Ari Sandel’s Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween has arrived, armed with a winning premise if there ever was one. This time around, evil dummy Slappy wants to start the Halloween Apocalypse in a small New York town, using his powers (with a little help from the late Nikola Tesla) to quite literally bring to life every single Halloween decoration in the town. Yes, Slappy has unleashed Halloween Hell on Earth, with the formerly titled Slappy Halloween (a far superior title) aiming to tell a story Stine himself never actually wrote.
On paper, Haunted Halloween is a guaranteed good time, combining two things that are personal favorites: family-friendly horror and the best goddamn holiday of the year, Halloween. But despite the they-can’t-possibly-mess-this-up premise, Goosebumps 2 does just that, never quite managing to deliver on much of the concept’s promised fun. Sure, it’s undeniably charming to see gummy bears and literal Halloween costumes come to life to terrorize a town – and Goosebumps 2, to its semi-admirable credit, is home to no shortage of small town Halloween atmosphere – but there’s weirdly very little fun to be found in this sequel.
Worse yet, Goosebumps 2 commits the biggest of all the sequel sins. The sin that makes all other sins shake in their boots. Yes, it’s a bad version of what we already got back in 2015, almost directly lifting the plot from the first film and erasing most of its good qualities.
Goosebumps 2 is loaded with monsters, most of them new creations that you won’t find inside any of Stine’s books – the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and Slappy are the only returning villains – but the script never figures out what to do with literally any of them. For much of the runtime, even when things kick into high gear, the effects team’s awesome makeup work is hidden in the background, with most of the monsters playing the role of glorified extras. This was something of a problem with the first film as well, but the monsters get even less on-screen exposure this time around. The shining star here is probably a massive spider made out of balloons, which does at least make for a memorable image.
Whereas the monsters are underutilized, almost everything else about the film is just plain undercooked. The human characters get very little to do, and the writing never allows any of them to shine. Young leads Jeremy Ray Taylor and Caleel Harris, along with Madison Iseman, do their best with the material, but there’s just not much there for them to play with. Just as wasted are adult actors Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ken Jeong, who we know to be funny with the right material. Here, the humor falls flat, and any semblance of heart to be found within the material feels forced due to the bad storytelling/character work at the scripting stage. Goosebumps had heart to spare back in 2015, but the sequel’s forced attempt to make you feel something, *anything* in the final moments is nothing if not woefully unearned.
The elephant in this particular room is of course Jack Black, whose return in Goosebumps 2 was recently spoiled by a marketing campaign desperately trying to reel in an audience with what should’ve been a surprise reveal. The reality is, Black plays Stine in a tiny fraction of the sequel, showing up very briefly towards the end for what amounts to a glorified cameo. In fact, it’s actually the joke within the film that Stine, well, shows up only once the story is finished.
You could say that Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is a movie intended for children – it’s worth noting that a little girl two rows in front of me seemed genuinely terrified of Slappy, who does actually manage to be a bit creepy this time around (it’s all very Child’s Play early on) – and that a 32 year old horror fan probably was never supposed to find much to enjoy here, but as I must stress, I’m a huge fan of the Goosebumps property and I absolutely loved the franchise’s debut on the big screen. Age aside, this was a movie tailor made for my tastes.
Alas, as I sit here right now, there’s only a sour one in my mouth. The second film in a franchise with so much existing material to pull from should simply never be this dull.