'Goosebumps' and the fun in being frightened

05 Feb 2016 BY Kirsten Geekie in Film Features

8 mins
Goosebumps still
Goosebumps still

Frightening fun - getting the balance of comedy and creeps

One of the best-selling children's book series' (second to Harry Potter, of course), with millions of copies sold worldwide, the Goosebumps books have been scaring young readers with their unique style of thrills, spills and gawky comedy since the 1990s. With 62 books in the original series, several spin-off series, and even a television show, it's perhaps surprising that author R.L. Stine's creepy creations haven't made it to the big screen already. With such a big fan base, whoever was going to take on a Goosebumps film knew they would have to pull out all the stops to have it live up to the wild success of the books.

A story within a story

Appreciating this, director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs AliensSharks TaleGullivers Travels) and his writing team knew the only way to make something as impressive as the books would be to make a film crammed with many of the most well-known Goosebumps creatures, with the author himself placed right at the centre. Played by comedian Jack Black - known for his alternative teaching style in School of Rock, the voice of Po in the Kung Fu Panda series, and for his work with Letterman on Gulliver's Travels - here he gives a more sinister performance as tortured author R.L. Stine. 

Shrouded in mystery, he warns neighbourhood newcomer Zach to stay away from his teenage daughter Hannah. But, disturbed by the strange noises coming from their house, Zach enlists eager new friend Champ to help him break in, only to discover that their mysterious neighbour is, in fact, the well-known author of the Goosebumps books. Inadvertently, Zach unlocks one of Stine's original manuscripts, and accidentally unleashes all of the Goosebumps creatures out into the real world, leaving the teenagers and Stine to find a way to get them all back on the page where they belong.

Goosebumps Monsters still

Keeping the spirit of the books alive

With the author, the art of writing, and many of his most recognisable characters at the heart of the narrative, the Goosebumps film is built on the successful formula of the original books. Devised by a team of writers whose credits include animated comedies Turbo and Shrek Forever After, and surrealist Tim Burton dramas Ed Wood and Big Eyes, the film embodies the spirit of the books with a blend of surreal scares and comedy. The real R.L. Stine even advised director Rob Letterman to keep the film scary but fun, allowing young audiences to enjoy the thrill of the scare, but still be able to sleep at night. Casting Jack Black as Stine enables this: a well-known face to audiences, Black constantly undermines the threat of the creatures with his trademark wit and goofy demeanour. 

Recognisable and relatable, another key aspect of the books that the film upholds is the everydayness of its main characters. Zach is just a regular kid, recently relocated from a big city to a sedate town, looking for friends. Hannah, the girl-next-door, is a 16-year-old shut-in who just wants to be normal, and Champ an awkward, eager to impress, scaredy-cat.

In the mould of a classic fantasy family adventure

A thrilling children's adventure film, Goosebumps recalls an era of fantasy sci-fi films made famous in the 1980s by famed director Steven Spielberg and his company Amblin Entertainment. Featuring everyday kids in sedate suburban American towns that are beset by strange goings on, Amblin films such as Spielberg's science fiction classic E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Joe Dante's Gremlins, and comedies The Goonies and Back To The Future all come to mind as you watch Zach, Hannah and Champ fight off the Goosebumps monsters.

Monster effects 

To maintain this real world aesthetic, director Rob Letterman was keen to ensure that the majority of the creatures were created from make-up and special effects rather than computer animation. Capturing them on camera also allowed the actors to react to them in a realistic way. Letterman's team was challenged with creating a whole army of unique creatures. Despite only ever being fleetingly seen on screen, the make-up department utilised a variety of methods for their creatures, including latex prosthetics for graveyard Zombies, stilts for the evil Jack O'Lantern, and a woven camouflage Bog Monster suit. The team even used bath sealant to replicate ice on the frozen people wigs! Even the creepiest of the creatures, Slappy the Dummy, was an entirely practical effect. A ventriloquist dummy, Slappy is Stine's evil alter ego, and is the figure that gangs the creatures together. Built to resemble Jack Black, Slappy is also voiced by him, and was operated on set by a skilled puppeteer.

For the more supernatural creatures - the Abominable Snowman, the vengeful garden gnomes, the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, the fantastically eerie Fifi the Vampire Poodle, and the Blob - make-up alone wouldn't suffice, and so CGI and VFX were applied. To allow the filmmakers to capture the creatures' superhuman strength and otherworldly movements, each one was intricately designed over several months, taking into consideration their distinctive sizes, weight and textures. 

Not just for Goosebumps geeks

For those familiar with the books, there is fun to be had recognising your favourite creatures, as well as numerous Goosebumps in-jokes that the filmmakers have littered throughout the film, including a cameo by the Cuckoo Clock of Doom in Stine's basement. The real R.L. Stine even makes a cameo appearance as a teacher in the closing scenes. But the film is not just for Goosebumps geeks - chock-full of monsters, the film uses the book's ethos of creepy thrills and giggles to hugely entertaining effect, providing a frighteningly fun thrill ride that will capture the imagination of non-readers and Goosebumps fans alike.  

Kirsten Geekie, Film Programming Manager

Kirsten Geekie, Film Curation Manager

MA (Hons) in English Literature & Film and Television Studies, University of Glasgow with a background in Film Festivals having worked for Edinburgh International Film Festival, Sheffield Doc Fest and BFI London Film Festival.

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