For the second time in recent weeks, Jack Black is trying on a kids-sized horror movie, and both times, he’s had mixed results. The House with the Clock in the Walls was a slick production with a handful of mildly unsettling moments that made it a somewhat interesting creep fest. But now Black returns to playing a fictionalized version of author R.L Stine, creator of the Goosebumps series of young adult horror books that inspired the hit 2015 original film of the same name. For whatever reason, despite having a bevy of Stine’s stories to choose from, the filmmakers of Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween decided to go with an original story from screenwriter Rob Lieber, which is likely why so much of the sequel feels partly like a rehash of the first film and partly like a series of generic Halloween site gags that don’t amount to even tepid creepiness.
In the new film, two young friends attempt to get a junk-hauling business off the ground (known as the Junk Brothers) and gain access to a dilapidated old home with a secret room that houses what they believe is valuable junk. Included in the haul is a worn-out ventriloquist dummy with a piece of paper with magical words that, when read, bring Slappy the Dummy (voiced by Black) to life to cause epic-level mischief. The two friends are the Tesla-obsessed Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor)—Tesla the inventor, not the car—and Sam (Caleel Harris), who spearheads bookings for the business. And at first when Slappy comes to life and starts talking to them about how happy he is to be a part of their family, they embrace their strange new friend, who can make things move or materialize with his mind. And if he says the right magic words, he can even bring inanimate objects to life (which should have been an instant red flag).
Not surprisingly, Slappy is only using his new family (which eventually includes sister Sarah, played by Madison Iseman, and mother Kathy, played by Wendi McLendon-Covey) to help grant him access to the means to unleash a particularly massive spell that brings all things Halloween to life—masks grow whole monster bodies, pumpkins come to life, rubber bat decorations start flying above the town, and so on. Even the massive spider sculpture that Sonny’s neighbor (Ken Jeong) has built out of balloons to cover his home comes to life and starts its own rampage. I’ll fully admit that the idea of every stupid Halloween decoration and specialty candy from every pop-up costume shop in the area suddenly coming to life is a great idea, and director Ari Sandel (The Duff) does a great job of letting us know the scope of the problem at hand, even if the special effects he uses to make this monster attack happen are a bit shoddy.
Especially after seeing Black in the season’s other kid-centric horror offering, it’s clear that he’s much needed to spice things up at key moments. Instead, the Stine character is essentially an extended cameo as he responds to a frantic distress call from one of the kids; for much of the movie, we only see him for fractions of time making his way to the town. When he arrives and starts recommending ways to fight Slappy’s brand of evil, you can sense the film getting better thanks to Black infusing his personality into the mix.
There are messages about not giving up on your dreams, as Sarah almost does when she feels her passion for writing is being met with indifference from her teachers. Stine encourages her to keep pushing through and getting better as a storyteller. Goosebumps 2 certainly has its heart in the right place, but that doesn’t keep it from feeling like stale, year-old candy—of course you still eat it, but reluctantly. Too often, it’s playing things safe and might have been better suited as a made-for-TV movie on a family-friendly cable channel.
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