Synopsis – Two young friends find a magic book that brings a ventriloquist’s dummy to life.
My Take – For any young reader who grew up in the 90s, author R.L. Stine‘s Goosebumps series holds a special place. Influenced by various myths and fantasies, the YA horror books for years manages to indulge us into their fictional worlds of monsters, aliens, freaky transformations and terrible summer camps, all the while keeping it as light as they could be to avoid traumatizing its target audience. However the biggest surprise came in the form of the 2015 live action adaptation that turned out to be better than anyone expected, fulfilling the expectations of nostalgic grownups as well as winning over a new audience.
By cramming in a bunch of bestselling kids’ horror antagonists led by the excellent Slappy the evil dummy, into a meta-narrative that turned author R.L. Stine himself (in the body of an especially neurotic Jack Black) into a character within his own concoction, the film turned out be quite fun, and just spooky enough to keep both kids and adults entertained throughout. As R.L. Stine’s creations came to life to terrorize the town of Madison, Delaware, the film, directed by Rob Letterman, retained enough spark and originality (and nostalgia for Stine’s works) to make it a genuinely good time. Fast forward three years later, the sequel which arrives minus the original cast and new director at the helm, the attempted replication of the formula seems to have gone for a toss.
While the film retains the fun little quirks that will be considered very appropriate for the family audience, and the few semi-scary parts are surrounded by humor, this sequel from director Ari Sandel (The Duff) feels quite disjointed especially when it is integrating all its characters and creatures. Most importantly, it’s disappointing because it barely has Jack Black in it.
The story follows Sonny Quinn (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam Carter (Caleel Harris), two best buddies who got each other’s backs when it comes to middle school, homework and bullies. They’ve even just started a small junk-collecting and disposal business together called the Junk Bros. When one of the calls leads them to an abandoned home where Stine used to live, they discover a secret hideaway holding a mysterious trunk. After pulling out the trunk and opening it, though, they find nothing but a locked leather-bound book titled Haunted Halloween. And when Sonny and Sam find a key and unlock it, they find that it’s nothing more than a dusty old incomplete book filled with nothing but words.
While they decide what to do with it they come across a creepy ventriloquist doll. However things change when they bring doll home and find out that it can talk and almost do anything it wants, but most importantly it has a name, Slappy (voiced by Jack Black). Initially, Slappy seems like a godsend, dealing with the boys’ bullies and doing their homework in a matter of seconds. But it’s soon apparent that Slappy’s true intentions are much more nefarious and matters complicate when he ingratiates himself into the life of Sonny’s sister Sarah (Madison Iseman), a senior struggling with a scummy boyfriend and college applications, who has been handed over baby-sitting duties from their working single mother, Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey). And it is not long before the demon doll unleashes the full force of Halloween on the poor town of Wardenclyffe, with Sarah and the boys being the only ones capable of stopping him.
Short and to the point, this movie was a quick, fun adventure that did little to slow the antics down. From the get go, you’ll be immersed into the adventure at hand, as what can be describes Stranger Things, meets a Disney vibe and is executed well. The fact that time seems to fly by is a good sign that this will be fun for most. Plus, 90 minutes is a good target goal in my opinion. While malevolent dolls can be pretty scary, this film keeps it PG, of course. Like its predecessor, the sequel doesn’t want to terrify children so much as give them the Halloween fun house vibes, which director Ari Sandel and screenwriter Rob Lieber (Peter Rabbit) more or less accomplish.
It’s strictly garden-variety trick-or-treat frivolity, but it has a sense of humor, and the climactic mayhem, in which Halloween costumes, decorations, and even candy come to life and is admirably large-scale, including an amusing battle with a legion of gummy bears. Watching the monsters come to life while surely put a smile on every fan. However, the downside is that the film lacks in creativity, and is filled with plot holes and internal inconsistencies.
Less a sequel and more a reboot, this film repeats pretty much the same movie beat by beat, while moving the setting to a small (and identical) town in New York. We also get a whole new set of plucky, underdog kids who don’t veer too far away from the archetypes utilized first time around. But all he clever references have been drained from the script. Even the cute and creative monsters, like the giant gummy bears that attempt to devour Sonny and Sam, are not enough to enliven the story, which simply throws chaos at a basic plot in an attempt to disguise that it’s incredibly thin. Sony obviously spent money to give the film a high production value and they could have differentiated the plot, even by a smudge.
The ending of the film in particular feels like painting by numbers, a sensation given physical shape by Jack Black’s cameo. Black, who played a fictionalized version of R.L. Stine in the first movie, reprises his role here to lesser effect. It almost feels like he’s in the film solely to set up for a possible sequel, as his part here mostly amounts to popping up, as if just to establish that this movie takes place in the same universe. The unintended side effect of his flitting in and out is making it difficult not to wonder just what this film would be like if it were more of a direct sequel. It’d have to follow at least a slightly different narrative template, right? Especially since Stine’s reclusive habits seem to have kicked into high gear since the last time we saw him. While I admit I must Slappy is creepy as hell, and he’s the one aspect of the film that’s genuinely invested for all ages. The visual effects team have improved Slappy’s realism, especially his movements and Jack Black‘s sinister voice over adds a few more spoonful of chills.
Some of the cracks come from unconvincing performances of the two leads Jeremy Ray Taylor and Caleel Harris, who seems completely disinterested throughout. While Madison Iseman manages to hold her own, Chris Parnell and Wendi McLendon-Covey are wasted in supporting roles. The only performance worth mentioning is Ken Jeong, who brings his energetic weirdness to a rather small role. His character has the kind of genuine, off-the-walls enthusiasm for spooks and scares that would have made the movie a blast to watch had it centered on him. On the whole, ‘Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween’ is a disappointing sequel, which in its attempt to cater only to a kid-friendly audience takes a major step back in quality.
Directed – Ari Sandel
Rated – PG
Run Time – 90 minutes