This Goosebumps review contains no spoilers.
R. L. Stine’s famous teen horror book series Goosebumps was a big thing in the ‘90s. The books sold like candy (which meant over four million copies a month during their prime), and the author was dubbed the “Stephen King of children’s literature” — which is strange because I always thought that Stephen King was the Stephen King for kids — with a substantial influence on shaping the genre. Nevertheless, Stine’s novels were unsubtle and simple, usually devoid of gruesome violence and murder, appealing to younger readers by creating deliciously spooky atmospheres combined with campy humor. Naturally, they spawned multiple adaptations from video games to TV series to movies and more, varying in quality and success.
The latest one, created by Rob Letterman and Nicholas Stoller for Disney+ and Hulu, Goosebumps, unfortunately, falls in the line of weaker adaptations that entirely fail to capture the essence of why these stories were such innocent fun in the first place. Compared to the 2015 movie, or the classic TV show that aired between ‘95 and ‘98, this modern retelling (based on multiple stories) is embarrassing and humiliating to the entire franchise. For the most part, it plays like a Scary Movie parody, except the jokes are virtually non-existent, and the only source of humor comes from how unintentionally funny and laughably awful everything in the series is.
Opting for a serial structure instead of an anthology, Goosebumps aims to tell one continuous story through an ensemble cast of high schoolers (and their parents), who each face different manifestations of a supernatural evil they come across at a party in the town’s haunted house. We follow a group made of five teen archetypes, Isaiah (Zack Morris), the jock, James (Miles McKenna), the gay guy, Margo (Isa Briones), the smartass, Isabella (Ana Yi Puig), the loner, and Lucas (Will Price), the weirdo, encountering the ghost of Harold Biddle (Ben Cockell), who was tragically killed by a demonic force in 1993.
It takes a minute until the kids put the pieces together about what happened all those years ago, but they quickly realize they have to unite and work together to defeat Biddle before it’s too late. Naturally, their parents also play into the equation by knowing details about his mysterious death, which they carefully try to hide from their offspring as long as possible. But sooner or later, the truth will have to come out, and when it does, it brings a bunch of slimy creatures alongside decade-old secrets.
It’s all standard spooky stuff with few surprises for anyone well-versed in the genre. It must be said, though, that the initial concept of basing each episode around one character in particular (drawing inspiration from separate Goosebumps materials) is actually a good idea. Unfortunately, the execution lacks even the slightest bit of suspense, and it’s riddled with cringe dialogue, outdated CGI, and some of the worst acting I’ve seen on TV this year. Anything the writers throw at the wall doesn’t seem to stick, and the plot falls flat rapidly in almost every episode.
Instead of revelling in the campy aspects of Stine’s stories, the series delves into the most boring teenage drama imaginable — in an overly solemn and theatrical manner — and exhausts the most generic clichés that come to mind. Whether it’s relationship troubles, one-sided crushes, overwhelming grief, or the pain of social isolation, the writing simply can’t hold the viewer’s attention. The characters are painfully dumb and one-dimensional, and the actors playing them struggle to find an approach to make them seem even slightly intriguing. We know they’re acting, they know they’re acting, and the result is just as poor as you imagine it to be. Even Justin Long (playing the new, awkward teacher in town), who’s pretty much perfected his horror persona to always be as goofy/creepy/weird as required, can’t seem to figure out how to play his role that just feels strangely out of place.
It’s almost as if the writers of Goosebumps forgot to modernize the material and chose to include the least engaging bits that aged the worst and feel the most unremarkable. And somehow, despite the show feeling dated as hell, they also managed to eliminate that ‘90s guilty pleasure charm the books can still hold nearly three decades later.
One consolation — even if it’s too little too late — is that the further the series gets, the all-too-serious tone seems to loosen up a little (backed by a versatile and energetic soundtrack), and there’s an attempt from the writers to lean into the material’s unserious and more bonkers aspects. The trouble is that after the first two atrociously terrible episodes you could torture people with, there won’t be many viewers who stick around until the show actually becomes at least watchable.
Then again, it’s necessary to remind everyone that the original books’ target audience was mainly children aged between 10 and 14. And although it’s hard to imagine any parent who’d wilfully want to introduce their child to horror at such a young age, if they do, I guess Goosebumps could be their first choice that does the job without traumatizing them. I mean, for kids who just started dipping their toe into scary movies but are still unaccustomed to the real macabre stuff, this show might serve as a reasonable starting point that regurgitates the genre tropes with no harm.
But to any older and more knowledgeable horror fans, I’d strongly suggest steering clear of this adaptation. There are a plethora of other better, more exciting, and profound horror shows on television that are actually worth watching.
The first five episodes of Goosebumps are available to stream on Hulu and Disney+ now.