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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Goosebumps, Review: BlackJack Stine and the ‘loose’ characters

Goosebumps, Review: BlackJack Stine and the ‘loose’ characters

It’s enough to give you goosebumps: over 400 million Goosebumps books have been sold worldwide, in 32 languages, with author R.L. Stine recognised as one of the highest rated, bestselling, children’s authors in history. Goosebumps had its TV adaptation running from 1995 to 1998. Now, here comes the movie, with so much material that the makers were spoilt for choice. A clever technique is used to get past the hurdles of too many characters, too many books, so what to pick, and which ones to include? The makers have made the author himself a central character, and fitted in a large number of his creations, as just that. In the plot, the monster characters are let loose by accident, and spread mayhem, in 3D, till they are recaptured and restored to the place where they belong, i.e., in the books!

Teenager Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) is upset about moving from New York City  to small town Delaware, with his widowed mother Gail (Amy Ryan), who has found a job there as Vice-Principal of a school. However, he finds a silver lining when he meets beautiful, Hannah (Odeya Rush), living right next door, and makes a quick friend in Champ (Ryan Lee), the cowardly equipment manager of the school’s football team.  But every silver lining has a cloud, and Zach’s comes when he learns that Hannah’s mysterious dad is in fact R.L. Stine (Jack Black), the author of the bestselling Goosebumps series, which he hates. 

As Zach starts learning about the strange family next door, he soon discovers that Stine holds a dangerous secret: the creatures that his stories made famous are ‘real’, and Stine protects his readers by keeping them locked up in their books.  When Stine’s creations are accidentally released from their manuscripts, Zach’s life takes a turn for the weird.  In a crazy night of adventure, it’s up to Zach, Hannah, Champ, and Stine to team-up, and get all of these figments of Stine’s imagination – including Slappy, the Ventriloquist’s Dummy (the villain-in-chief, Stine’s alter ego), the girl with the haunted mask, the gnomes and many more – back in the books, where they belong, to save the town from the terror they have unleashed.

Goosebumps has a story by the writer duo, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People v/s Larry Flynt, Man on The Moon, Big Eyes), with screenplay by Darren Lemke (Shrek Forever After, Jack the Giant Slayer, Turbo). With an oeuvre like Stine’s, it was good use of imagination to put him in the centre and make it a tussle between author and running riot characters. Inspiration is likely to have come from the play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Italian playwright, Luigi Pirandello, first performed in 1921. Dubbed “madhouse” initially, it went on to become a minor classic.

It is unclear in the film why Stine keeps his own books locked. After all, millions of young adults read them, and nothing happens. By implication, one can conclude that they are a threat only when the manuscript is unlocked. Further, why is it that only the monsters jump out of the pages, not any of the normal or good guys, unless, of course, all the characters in his novels are monsters, which is highly unlikely. No attempt is made to give the creatures any reason for becoming weapons of mass destruction the moment they are let loose. It could be a metaphor for sublimating demons of our minds, though, logically, a character is an author’s best friend, and its conceiving and publishing or propagation should be a cause for jubilation, rather than revenge. As counterpoint to the all the bad guys who have escaped from his locked books, Hannah, who lives in his imagination, is the embodiment of love and care, and the track between her and Zach is touching. Stine comes across as a cranky, oddball author, which is a stereo-type.

Rob Letterman (Shark Tale, Monsters v/s Aliens, Gulliver's Travels) directs, with a keen eye for thrills and scares, and some intelligent visual twists. Just as Hannah’s character balances the evil beings, her sublime affair with Zach, beautifully captured in the Ferris wheel scene, is a fine piece of balancing amidst the mayhem. Letterman is unable to make Stine’s part totally convincing, but he is able to strike the right chords in the relationship between Zach and Gail. Sequences in the school are well-executed. Though Slappy shifts his position in a jiffy—now he’s here, now he’s there—he is hardly shown indulging in any real ventriloquism.

Jack Black (King Kong, Kung Fu Panda, Bernie) plays the stocky Stine with an assertive, cold, affected tone. He comes into his own towards the latter part of the story, when you get to understand the reasons for his demeanour. Stine’s most lasting creation, Slappy the Dummy was designed and created by Ironhead Studio as a real, working ventriloquist’s dummy – one that resembled Jack Black in many ways. Black has now appeared in of Letterman’s films. Dylan Minnette (Labor Day, Prisoners) is well-built, with a touch of vulnerability. His sarcastic barbs enliven the proceedings.

Odeya Rush (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) is an Israeli/American, with a strong, sensitive, screen presence. Ryan Lee (Super 8, This is 40) is a delight, and shows a penchant for deadpan humour. Has age begin to show on 47 year-old Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, Bridge of Spies) or is she merely looking the part of a 17 year-old’s mother? Hope it’s the latter. Jillian Bell plays Lorraine, Gail’s sister and Zach’s aunt, a single woman who is desperate to latch on/date any available man, at the drop of the proverbial hat, a role convincingly essayed.

Some of the escape and trampling and ‘running for their lives’ scenes get repetitive,  and the film drags a bit in the middle one-third. Designed for the 16-25 age-group, it might find an audience among them. That, in turn , could lead groups of students to cinema houses, boy-friends, girl-friends and just friends. As the saying goes, what’s good for the goose, is good for the bumps...I mean gander.

Rating: **1/2


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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