The Disney+ Goosebumps show might be one of the biggest surprises of this year. A reimagining of RL Stine’s bestselling book series, it offers more than just modernized versions of old stories. Rather, “Goosebumps” devotes itself to the darker aspects of its clever plot, with terror enhanced by the talented cast and decent special/practical effects in a way that could potentially elicit the titular fear response from its target audience.
This take on Goosebumps is nothing like the horror anthology series that ran for four seasons in 1995. It is more similar to Rob Letterman’s Jack Black films in that it has a central plot that incorporates elements from some of the most popular books in the series. The difference is that Letterman and Nicholas Stoller were allowed to produce a more mature portrayal – one that allows for swearing, body horror and a disturbing new way of tying together the tales of cursed objects and monstrous beings into a cohesive story. The result is a shockingly scary experience for Goosebumps fans new and old, at least in the first five episodes of this 10-episode season that we’ve been able to see.
Goosebumps doesn’t shy away from some of the weighty themes one might find in other horror media. The devastating nature of adultery, the harrowing details of a murder, or the shocking implications of a possible suicide do not typically appear in Stine’s books. However, they live here primarily to terrorize the lives of five teenagers who accidentally stumble upon the remnants of a long-kept secret. Now they’re haunted by a vengeful ghost – the result of a misguided Halloween party in a recently renovated house full of items you shouldn’t touch, let alone take home – and must work together if they have any hope of surviving the future days.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, considering how precarious her life is as a teenager. It proves difficult to fight evil as a unit while juggling everything else – various love triangles, absent parents and scholarships tied to upcoming sporting events. As might be expected given the reliance on specific high school/small town settings, the resulting fights are steeped in typical teenage angst, occasionally prioritizing the importance of a romantic encounter over dealing with an impending threat . Still, the melodrama is compelling thanks in part to the efforts of Goosebumps’ talented cast, all of whom are convincing in their roles.
Zack Morris, for example, is wonderfully charming as star quarterback Isaiah. A funny, courageous and all-round encouraging person, his portrayal avoids the stereotypical aspects of the classic egocentric “athlete”, regardless of his low test scores. This refreshing take helps endear Isaiah to viewers and makes his first “contact” with a deadly object all the more meaningful. The same goes for Isa Briones’ portrayal of the quick-witted but socially awkward Margot. It’s funny how she expresses her confusion about the strange happenings in the city. However, it is her passionate display of emotion that forms the basis for some of the most heartfelt scenes in Goosebumps.
Miles McKenna’s portrayal of Isaiah’s best friend James offers a positive representation of the LGBTQIA+ community. Although his portrayal can seem a little offensive when it comes to how people think a gay character should act, McKenna does a great job of embodying James as a person and creating a fully realized character that people root for can cause bad situations. Ana Yi Puig’s strong portrayal of Isabella essentially reflects a modern-day Daria with anger issues; Her struggle to convince her classmates that the recent acts of violence weren’t necessarily her own doing, while simultaneously trying to remain calm so as not to fuel their suspicions, is nothing short of hilarious. Will Price also does an excellent job portraying the accident-prone extreme athlete Lucas. He’s something of an oddball and his evil wipeouts add a bit of levity. It is the darker side of his journey that truly comes through as Price’s subtle mannerisms give meaning to the aloof nature of this troubled individual.
Almost every member of the Goosebumps cast is likable to some degree. Even Justin Long – up to his usual trick of being an overly talkative yet oddly likable everyman – is decent as Mr. Bratt, the new high school English teacher/owner of the aforementioned haunted house.
However, none of the cast’s impressive performances would matter if the plot wasn’t equally great. Thankfully, Goosebumps nails this point by not only delving into the darker themes, but also finding clever ways to incorporate some of its popular books into the series.
Say “Cheese and Die,” “The Cuckoo Clock of Doom,” “The Haunted Mask” – all of these stories have been cleverly altered to fit into an overarching plot that still adheres to the core concepts of each book. And in most cases, what’s on the show is several times scarier than what’s found on those old pages; The way it incorporates the spin-off series Give Yourself Goosebumps: Reader Beware is genius to say the least. Visually it’s also outstanding, with few CGI-based scenes sacrificing quality compared to the practical effects.
“Goosebumps” is an absolute eye-catcher. Funny, scary and at times disturbingly unhinged, it will be a solid introduction to horror for younger viewers. Older fans won’t be frightened by the film, given its PG-13 approach to violence – where a bloody mouth or exposed bone only appears on screen for seconds at a time – and teenage angst melodrama. However, the fact that Goosebumps is anything like body horror is astounding in itself. And its wonderfully clever plot and great cast should resonate with viewers. If the remaining episodes are as great as the first five, Disney+ and Hulu subscribers are in for a real treat this Halloween season.