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Four episodes into Disney+ and Hulu’s Goosebumps, two characters take a beat to reflect on everything they’ve been through. “You know, our parents are sleeping together, there’s a ghost kind of haunting us, and I’m vomiting up worms, and now we’re having like a sleepover or something,” one says. “Yeah, throw in a long-lost sibling and a rich grandmother and you’ve got a soap opera on your hands,” the other cracks. And that’s without even getting into the clone army or the prophetic camera or the weird new teacher or decades-long mystery binding their families together.
It’s a lot for any one show to handle, and Goosebumps stumbles. Where the R.L. Stine books dished out zippy, mostly standalone adventures, Rob Letterman and Nicholas Stoller’s series adaptation increasingly gets bogged down trying to deliver supernatural horror and angsty teen drama and a thoughtful rumination on how the mistakes of the past generation can reverberate into the present. Still, there’s adequate heart and humor and (TV-PG) gore here to serve as an amiable intro to horror for the adolescent set.
Airdate: Friday, Oct. 13 (Disney+ and Hulu)
Cast: Zack Morris, Isa Briones, Miles McKenna, Will Price, Ana Yi Puig, Justin Long, Rachael Harris
Developed by: Nicholas Stoller and Rob Letterman, based on the books by R.L. Stine
For grownups who read these books in their first printing, on the other hand, Goosebumps might function best as a reminder of how much time has passed since then. In 1993 — right around the time when Goosebumps would have been taking the YA publishing world by storm IRL — high-schooler Harold Biddle (Ben Cockell) dies in a basement fire encouraged by supernatural forces. His home stands empty for three decades until another high-schooler, golden-boy jock Isaiah (Zack Morris), breaks in to throw a Halloween rager. And while no fires come to pass this time, it’s not long before it becomes apparent that something went terribly wrong, as Isaiah and his classmates begin to experience strange and sinister events in the days that follow.
Despite an ambitious serialized plot, Goosebumps works best when its 40ish minute episodes focus primarily on one character, and one largely self-contained story, at a time. The premiere, “Say Cheese and Die!,” groans from under the weight of all the setup it’s obligated to juggle before it can get around to a halfhearted tale about Isaiah’s Polaroid-aided visions of doom. By contrast, the next episode, “The Haunted Mask,” is a trim, lightly creepy yarn about a loner (Ana Yi Puig’s Isabella) who feels invisible until she stumbles across a mask that brings out her inner troll. The one after that, “The Cuckoo Clock of Doom,” is a refreshingly zany entry that somehow transmutes the relatable terror of “being oneself” into the gross-out pleasures of watching social butterfly James (Miles McKenna) explode, repeatedly, into Jolly Rancher-scented goo.
The fourth chapter, “Go Eat Worms,” is every bit as disgusting as you’d expect from that title: Lucas (Will Price), previously introduced as a Jackass-inspired showoff, ingests a bunch of wrigglers that render him impervious to pain before turning on him and trying to destroy him. The narrative logic of the premise is plainly shaky — even Lucas’ mom Nora (Rachael Harris), who knows far more than she’s letting on about these bizarre events, can only shrug when asked to explain the rampaging worm monster. But the emotions, rooted in Lucas’ grief over his late father and his growing disconnect from his mother, ring true enough to yield some of the season’s most moving beats.
As the mystery brings Goosebumps‘ young leads closer (Isa Briones’ Margot rounds out the gang as Isaiah’s bookish neighbor), a charming cast and some solid writing keep them from feeling like generic Hughesian archetypes. Inevitably, drama bubbles up. A love triangle becomes a love quadrangle becomes a love pentagram. Long-simmering resentments boil over into screaming matches and fistfights. Kids trade gossip and romantic advice while waiting for the next monster or the next clue, because it’s that or stew silently in existential terror. (Parents may want to note that Goosebumps does occasionally mention sex, though the teenage characters never engage in anything more explicit than kissing.)
Unfortunately, the teen-soap elements are never given the time or attention they’d require to win a viewer’s full investment. They’re more like doodles in the margins of the main story, which, as the season progresses, grows more and more unwieldy. While the kids try to get to the bottom of the eerie goings-on at Port Lawrence, their parents are wrapped up in their own frantic efforts to deny, then cover up, their roles in the tragedy that started it all.
Meanwhile, Harold’s spirit has possessed the school’s new English teacher (Justin Long) as the first step in his quest for vengeance. This last wrinkle provides Goosebumps with its greatest comic highlights, as Long throws himself into the slapstick comedy of a dude at war with his own body.
The more the plot snowballs, the creakier Goosebumps becomes. The teens’ romantic developments grow so rushed that the characters are reduced to simply explaining their dynamics to one another, rather than figuring them out organically. The parents suck up an awful lot of screen time for being so thinly drawn that only about half of them seem to have personalities at all. Entirely too much of the seventh and eighth episodes (the last sent to critics, of a ten-episode season) are spent watching the characters slowly chase each other across a snowy mountain. During the most boring bits, I started to wonder how much any of this really hangs together; much of the lore appears to come down to “who knows, just go with it.”
But Goosebumps provides plenty of entertaining bits too, during which I found myself giggling at the great splatters of “James juice,” or smiling at Lucas’ obvious crush on Margot, or leaning into Harold’s Gen X tale of teen angst. There’s nothing here so dark and twisted it’ll chill anyone who’s already sat through Stranger Things, and none of its themes run deep enough to rival the tearjerking poignancy of last year’s Paper Girls or The Midnight Club. At its best, Goosebumps delivers playful adventures just weird and gross and spooky enough to entice a nascent horror fan without scaring them off entirely. Just like those old Goosebumps books used to do.
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