Jack Black and the makers of “Goosebumps” want to give audiences chills, all right. But it’s not just about the movie’s creature cavalcade, which at times can be surprisingly intense. This feature adaptation of kid-lit author R.L. Stine’s best-selling horror-comedy series is out to thrill fans with a story that’s just as obsessively invested as they are, right down to Black’s meta casting as Stine himself. It’s the best treat we’ve gotten this Halloween, and definitely not just a bigger-budgeted version of the “Goosebumps” seen on TV.
Dylan Minnette (“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible. . .”) is charismatically natural amid the supernatural as Zach, a hard-luck teen newly relocated with his school administrator mom (Amy Ryan). He forms a quick attraction with Hannah (Odeya Rush), the sardonic girl next door, even though her sketchy father (Black) forbids it. And the imperious kook tells Zach as much, in a tone so clipped and simultaneously grandiloquent, you half-expect Black to launch into some Tenacious D rock epic at any moment. (Later, he also vents some egotistic spleen at “Steve” King, in one of various slyly scripted bits.)
Cue the “Rear Window” intrigue. Zach spies Black’s silhouetted misanthrope apparently mistreating his daughter, and breaks in to investigate along with Champ (Ryan Lee), his self-appointed, irrepressibly geeky wing man. Their snooping leads them to a bookcase filled with bound, locked copies of original “Goosebumps” manuscripts, which end up being ill-advisedly opened, of course. Soon, the town is overrun by Stine’s spooky creations magically come to life: a yeti, a giant mantis, a vampire poodle, a demonic ventriloquist’s dummy (Black pulling double duty). The gang’s all here, and entertainingly, they’re all ripped straight from the pages of actual published stories.
The movie tends to more routine, less conceptually clever business as Stine fesses up about his celebrity status, and he and the kids put aside their differences to escape, outwit, and corral the monsters. Still, there’s great comedic energy throughout, as Black, scene stealer Lee, and director Rob Letterman (Black’s “Gulliver’s Travels” riff) dash off expertly timed laughs involving a marauding werewolf and vengeful garden gnomes.
The action can be unexpectedly dicey for PG fare, even with some uneven effects. But as Lee’s jitters case aptly points out, this isn’t normal kids’ book territory, meant to help you get to sleep — this is R.L. Stine weirdness, designed to keep you up at night. It’s just one more way that “Goosebumps” gets it.
Directed by Rob Letterman. Written by Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski, based on the books by R.L. Stine. Starring Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 98 minutes. PG (scary and intense creature action and images, and some rude humor).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.