It’s Halloween night, and two middle school boys are combating monsters in an attempt to save their mother from an evil ventriloquist dummy; how fun does that sound? If you're a nineties kid, like me, then the name R.L. Stine is as synonymous with your childhood as “Batman: The Animated Series” or “Dora: The Explorer.” The real-life author of 62 spook-tastic books for tweens that sold millions of copies makes his next entrance to the big screen. While some of us branched out from his child-like adventures to that of Stephen King's matured terror, R.L. Stine remains one of the more notable authors for a generation of kids that spent their nights reading and skipping through the pages of novel like that of “Night of the Living Dummy” or “Monster Blood.”
Looking back, I can recognize the dust-ridden bookshelves of novellas as the allegorical manifestations of children confronting adulthood; how they combat that of responsibility and maturity. A similar feat occurs in Ari Sandel’s “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” a delightful spook-fest for the Halloween soul. Rob Letterman’s “Goosebumps” was a blunder of adventure and scare, one that received praise from both critics and families alike. It was a fun, deliciously-eerie watch that in its follow-up swing has only squandered by that of a few notches.
Opening the film with that of the word “Fear,” as Sarah (Madison Iseman) types out loud into her laptop as she composes her college entry essay into Columbia University. The question asks about fear or a challenge she has overcome and how did it define who she is today; although currently, the only challenge she’s encountering is the horror of a blank page. A self-described creative writer, Sarah (Madison Iseman), like most of us so-called "aspiring writers," has seemingly encountered that ever-so dreadful and plagueful terror of “writer’s block.” However, she’s startled by the appearance of her boyfriend as he sneaks in through her bedroom window to drop off a care package for his mentally conflicting girlfriend. It’s a predictable fake-out scare moment, but what follows is surprisingly subverting of expectation as the mother catches the intruder before a make-out session ensues. Sarah’s single mother Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) swiftly sends him away in a hilarious moment of lecturing as she pokes fun at just how loud teenagers are today, mockingly repeating his dialogue in what is a well-written and devilishly clever start to the children adventure.
The next morning, Sarah attempts to apologize to her mother. While that of her little brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris), who is staying with them for the weekend, post an advertisement at the convenience store for their start-up dumpster-diving business. Sarah confides in her mother, and Kathy attempts to provide advice to her struggling writer of a daughter, but she also asks for her to babysit while she works double shift at the nursing home.
Sarah, apparently upset, plans to sneak out. In the meanwhile, Sonny is trying to finish his science project on Tesla, but Sam gets them their first job in which they are tasked with cleaning out an old house, but whatever they find they get to keep. This just so happens to be an old-residence for the once-popular child-horror author, as they soon discover a secret passage and a treasure chest locked away. They open it up and find a book. They open it of course as Slappy the Dummy suddenly appears with that latin card in his suit pocket. Sonny reads it aloud of course, and Slappy is brought to life. However, before he begins to terrorize the neighborhood, Sonny and Sam are confronted by that of Tommy, the local bully (Peyton Wich from “Stranger Things”), and Slappy comes in handy. He pulls down his pants and telepathically abuses the crew of neighborhood bullies, but later on, his niceness fades and the evil within begins to reveal itself.
The kids band together in some surprisingly deftly scenery that like the first film is brought to life through top-notch VFX work. Everyone involved begins to play a role in the story, even that of the next door neighbor, a Halloween enthusiast depicted by Ken Jeong from “Hangover” prominence. He goes overboard in decoration, producing a line to the sidewalk on Halloween night. But when Slappy begins to transform Halloween costumes into real-life monsters and ghouls, Jeong’s house becomes a grease-fire of fright. The enormous purple balloon spide is brought to gruesome life, stomping it's eights legs around the neighborhood and chattering its jaws.
These are the surprises of fear that come in handy when creating such a fun ride, as screenwriters Darren Lemke (“Goosebumps”) and Rob Lieger (“Peter Rabbit”) and Oscar-winning best short-film director Ari Sandel (“The Duff”) maintain a sense of unpredictability and rambunctious imagination to their adventure. Watching and cutting to everything and anything that has sparked into sentience, as at one point, hundreds of gummy bears begin to merge and gnash their gummy teeth as they attack and terrorize our youthful heroes.
That is ingenuity at work. But McLendon-Covey and Jack Black become underused talent pools, and Sarah and the boys are so thinly and haphazardly written that it's difficult to conjure up resonation for them amongst their battles with ghosts and headless equestrians. It’s missing vital components for a good allegory to reign true, but the few jokes provided to them and the glimpses of character attributes are entertaining enough to keep you focused on the journey at hand.
Black, has one of the film’s best jokes in which he arrives onto the mayhem of this Frankenstein-Halloween event and notices that of a solemn floating red balloon as he points and exclaims “Aha! I knew I came up with that first!” It’s a quick jab at the prominent King of horror as R.L. Stine once told King “ You know Steve, one magazine once called me a literary training bra for you." Steve replied: "Yes, I know." That same self-awareness that Stine exhibited to King is on grand-display by Ari Sandel. This is not a film about developing memorable characters or lessons to learn, but merely an encapsulated spook-filled adventure for families to enjoy. It’s not as bright or as compelling as the first film, but it strikes the perfect balance of silliness and creep-filled terror. The talent is in short supply both in front and behind the camera, but the remnants of inventiveness that make their way to the screen are worthwhile; sure enough, to make even the more cynical of trick-or-treaters leave the theater in the spirit for chills and thrills.