The Disney+ adaptation delivers age-appropriate spooky scares that work.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Do we need another live-action Goosebumps adaptation? After a ’90s Fox Kids series and a pair of 2010s films, one would assume that the ground of turning Slappy the dummy and other frightening beings into flesh-and-blood creations has been well-trodden.
Shockingly, the new Disney+/Hulu program Goosebumps quickly puts other incarnations out of one’s mind. What could’ve been just another October-themed cash grab proves more of treat than trick. Viewer beware! You’re in for some (actually enjoyable) scares.
This particular adaptation of Goosebumps focuses on a collection of original teen characters, including football star Lucas (Will Price), the uber-nervous and pragmatic James (Miles McKenna), and internet troll Isabella (Ana Yi Puig). These adolescents have seemingly ordinary lives until they discover a local house’s basement. Filled with knick-knacks and supernatural powers, the cellar soon begins impacting their lives for the worse. These items are all rooted in elements from the original Goosebumps books, including a camera that can predict unfortunate future events or a haunted mask that brings out the worst in the wearer.
New-to-town high school teacher Nathan Bratt (Justin Long) buys the spooky house. Before long, he’s possessed by the spirit of a dead teenager while doing a crossword puzzle one night. As if it weren’t bad enough to deal with malicious clones or extremely unorthodox worms, this undead teen has begun an elaborate revenge plot involving the protagonists, tormented parents, and plenty of beasties from the Goosebumps books.
In a wise decision, showrunners Nicholas Stoller and Rob Letterman (the director of 2015’s Goosebumps feature) opt to divide each episode into loose adaptations of the novels. This balances the serialized nature of the series with an episodic vibe that prevents it from mushing together into one binge-watch blur. Another smart choice is the creators’ willingness to take the familiar artifacts into drastically new directions. That ensures the production isn’t just doing hollow rehashes of previously adapted material. There’s something new here for newcomers and long-time R.L. Stine devotees alike.
Best of all, Goosebumps commits to actually feeling like a frightening show for younger audiences, in contrast to a comedy with one or two bursts of frights like Disney’s recent Haunted Mansion movie. There’s nothing graphic here, but directors like Erin O’Malley and Steve Boyum let darker or frightening moments breathe. They resist the constant obligation to have someone deliver a ham-fisted “silly line” to undercut these tension-filled sequences. Additionally, they shore up the spooky with a terrific score by The Newton Brothers. Their experiences working with the films and shows of Mike Flanagan, among others, serve this series extremely well, incorporating discordant noises or electronic flourishes in their compositions. How nice to watch a modern TV program that trusts younger audiences with an appropriately eerie tone.
Best of all, Goosebumps commits to actually feeling like a frightening show for younger audiences.
If there is a weak link here, it’s the writing. Take, for instance, attempts to provide brief glimpses of the possessed Nathan across the first few episodes. Even a game performance from Long can’t hide how these moments are little more the setup for future storytelling, too divorced from the action to be compelling. Meanwhile, writers like Franklin Jin Rho and Courtney Perdue try far too hard to cram an excessive amount of modern lingo into the teens’ dialogue. When such phrases already sound dated, the mind reels to imagine how they’ll play in a few years. Talented performers like McKenna can only do so much in executing this kind of dialogue.
Still, some clumsy references to Facebook and “trolls” aren’t enough to derail the nicely realized charms of Goosebumps. Even with a litany of other adaptations preceding it, it never feels like nostalgic fan service. After all, how can one go wrong with a spooky show that manages to wriggle in needle drops from the likes of SZA and Nine Inch Nails?
Goosebumps starts raises your hair on October 13 on Disney+.