Goosebumps


For Jack Black, the only terrifying thing about this movie are the reviews.

For Jack Black, the only terrifying thing about this movie are the reviews.

(2015) Family Comedy (ColumbiaJack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage, Steven Kreuger, Keith Arthur Bolden, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons, Karan Soni, R.L. Stine, Caleb Emery, Gabriela Fraile, Nate Andrade, Sheldon Brown, Melissa Brewer, Vivian Kyle, Clare Halstead. Directed by Rob Letterman

In the 90s, kids flocked to author R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. The books were essentially Twilight Zone episodes focusing on monsters that terrified many a kid back in the day. Stine continues to be a prolific author but has moved on to different series, but Goosebumps is the one that started it all.

When young Zach Cooper (Minnette) moves to a small Delaware town, he’s not exactly thrilled. He’s still dealing with the death of his dad a year ago and his mom (Ryan) has found a job as an assistant principal at the high school there. She thinks a new start in a new town might bring Zach out of the doldrums and while Zach puts up a good front, it’s clear he’s hurting.

Then he meets the girl next door and for any teenage boy, the girl next door is excellent tonic. Hannah (Rush) is beautiful and seems interested in him, but her tyrannical father (Black) seems more interested in keeping Zach as far away as possible. Georgia might do.

But Zach and his self-appointed friend Champ (Lee) discover that Hannah’s dad is none other than R.L. Stine and that the manuscripts in his basement, all of which are locked, contain the spirits of the monsters he invented and that unlocking those manuscripts transforms the creatures from imaginary to very real. And those real monsters are out to wreak havoc all over town, led by Slappy (also voiced by Black), a homicidal ventriloquist’s dummy that is seeking revenge against Stine for incarcerating him inside the manuscript for so many years.

The concept is a swell one, especially given the popularity of Stine and how many kids – who are now adults with kids of their own – know all of his books backwards and forwards, and for them and kids who are looking at their teen years with impatience, this is going to be a must-see and although Halloween has come and gone, this is excellent kid fare for that season of the year.

Black is as manic as ever as Stine, although his accent is a little bit bizarre. Black, being the human cartoon that he is, is perfect for this kind of audience and he doesn’t disappoint. He doesn’t get the majority of laughs here – Lee gets those – and Minnette is essentially the protagonist but Black is really the presence here. None of the other actors can really compete with his personality which is bigger than life. Bigger than ten lives, to be honest. Rush is also memorable as the ingenue.

The CGI creatures – and there are a lot of them – range from giant praying mantises, abominable snowmen, murderous garden gnomes, hungry zombies, implacable alien invaders and a gigantic Venus flytrap, among others. Pretty much every monster from the prolific series makes at least a cameo appearance, if you can call the Invisible Boy an appearance. In some ways it becomes sensory overload; a few monsters go a long way but hundreds soon becomes kind of background noise.

Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a nice job of setting the mood, and a setting of an abandoned amusement park is both lovely and bittersweet (Zach and Hannah have an encounter there early in the movie). I could have done with a few more moments like that although frankly, that’s not what the target audience is looking for so I can understand why those moments were few and far between.

The humor is pretty much vintage Nickelodeon although there are some clever bits, most involving Lee as the cowardly wingman. The pacing here is a little bit choppy although it generally moves pretty quickly and to Letterman’s credit he gets right into things without an overabundance of exposition. That’s both good and bad; good for those devotees of the book series who want to get right into it, bad for those less familiar with the books who need at least a little bit of explanation.

For the most part this is harmless entertainment and little more than that. This isn’t going to be (and never was intended to be) anything more than a distraction for a couple of hours. And that isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. For whatever it’s worth, this movie will probably be on a lot of family viewing lists for many Halloweens to come. Not a half bad fate for a movie, don’t you think?

REASONS TO GO: Some scary monsters. Nifty concept.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses something if you haven’t read the books. A little over-the-top in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some creature scares (a few of them intense) and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real R.L. Stine makes a cameo as a teacher named Mr. Black, who passes Jack Black, as R.L. Stine, in the school hallway.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Documented begins!

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Dead Silence


She's bummed because she's out of both Clearasil and Coppertone.

She’s bummed because she’s out of both Clearasil and Coppertone.

(2007) Horror (Universal) Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, Michael Fairman, Joan Heney, Laura Regan, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Judith Roberts, Keir Gilchrist, Steven Taylor, David Talbot, Steve Adams, Shelley Peterson, Enn Reitel (voice), Fred Tatasciore (voice), Austin Majors (voice), Julian Richings. Directed by James Wan.

The thing with urban legends is that they tend to be more folklore than folk. Legends like Bloody Mary and Spring-Heeled Jack, both of whom are likely to have at least some basis in fact, have evolved into creatures who haunt our nightmares but can do little more than that.

Jamie Ashen (Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Regan) are young and have their whole lives ahead of them. They don’t have much, but they do have a ventriloquist dummy that arrived mysteriously on their doorstep. So what does one do when one receives a ventriloquist dummy from an unknown source? If you’re Jamie Ashen, you go out for Chinese.

Naturally while he’s out picking up his Mu Shu Pork, his wife is being brutally murdered and yes, the dummy figures into it. Detective Lipton (Wahlberg), being no dummy himself, figures that the husband is suspect number one because he was the last person to see his wife alive, and this whole dummy story is completely preposterous, right? Not as preposterous as the cops letting him head back to his home town of Raven’s Falls to bury his wife, nor as much as later leaving the dummy at Jamie’s apartment despite it being an important bit of evidence. We’ll get to that later.

Jamie meets up with his Dad (Gunton) with whom his relationship has been strained to say the least but latest stepmom Ella (Valletta) seems to have mellowed him. Unfortunately, Dad’s new attitude doesn’t make much headway with his son, whose bridges have apparently been bombed and burned. However, Jamie meets up with the local undertaker (Fairman) and his addled sister (Heney) who inform him about the town’s dirty little secret; a ventriloquist named Mary Shaw (Roberts) once was accused of kidnapping and murdering a local child and was herself murdered by the irate townsfolk, who didn’t cotton much to that kind of thing. Mary was buried with her collection of more than 100 dummies, and has had her cadaver deformed to resemble a doll herself.

Of course, being murdered by irate townspeople will give a spirit one gnarly mad-on, so her spirit is rumored to have come back and picked off those responsible for her untimely demise one by one. The rumor goes that if her victim screams, Mary yanks out their tongue as well as a good deal of their soul/life force/whatever. It makes for an unpleasant nursery rhyme, but is the vengeful ghost of Mary Shaw real, and if she is, how do you fight something that has been dead for thirty years?

A fairly likable young cast performs as well as can be expected, with the character actors thrown in for good measure delivering. Kwanten is pleasant-looking enough, but struck me as more whiny than heroic. Valletta is awfully nice to look at but had sadly little to do. Gunton is one of my favorite character actors, but again is given a thankless role that gets very little screen time and makes little impact. Wahlberg is solid playing a role he has already done in the Saw movies, which Wan and writer Leigh Whannell created. He does it well enough, I suppose.

Director Wan works the tension up nicely although the pace drags occasionally. There aren’t a lot of special effects to deal with other than the articulated dolls but the dolls are first-rate when they do appear. The cinematography was adequately dark and murky to suit the mood although the set of the old theater where the climax takes place was unconvincing to my eyes.

A neat little twist at the end is the icing on a well-written cake. Although the “urban legend supernatural villains” has been done before, it hasn’t been done much better than this. Wan and Whannell go for a more atmospheric and less visceral movie than Saw and excel at it.

Unfortunately, Kwanten is uninspiring as the lead, and Wahlberg walks through his part as if he’s done it all before – which he has. There are a few too many preposterous plot points that were completely unnecessary such as the police leaving the ventriloquist dummy in the crime scene apartment. In real life something like that would be bagged for evidence along with the package it arrived in if for no other reason to rule out that the dummy’s appearance wasn’t tied to the murder. Something tells me that even I, not a professional detective, would find it a bit unusual that a murder victim received a ventriloquist dummy on their doorstep minutes before their demise and being the unprofessional that I am would be inclined to investigate it.

There are some pretty nifty scares here and some genuine creep-out moments. Horror film buffs, of which I am one, will find it a fairly fresh take on a genre that has been somewhat weak historically – the supernatural urban legend. Fans of Saw might be disappointed at the lack of gore but this is a pretty decent spookfest for those who love their horror atmospheric more than visceral.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice atmospheric thrills. Some scary moments liable to give you the creepy-crawlies.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kwanten is not convincing as the lead. Lapses in logic throughout,
FAMILY MATTERS: Although the gore is cut down significantly from the Saw movies, the atmosphere is far too spooky for the impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Among the dolls seen in the climax are replicas of Edgar Bergen’s doll Charlie McCarthy, Jimmy Nelson’s doll Danny O’Day and Jigsaw’s doll from Saw.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video for Aiden’s “We Sleep Forever” as well as a featurette on the making of the film’s villain.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.2M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental/Stream), Amazon (Rent/Buy), iTunes (Purchase only), Vudu (Rent/Buy), Flixster (Rent/Buy), Target Ticket (Purchase Only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness Falls
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: My Old Lady