If your overbearing parents prevented you from watching scary movies or reading scary novels you were too young to consume during childhood, R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series was the perfect alternative for kids to get their spooky fix. Whether it was the novels or the FOX Kids anthology series—which came out admittedly before my time, but I watched reruns through the defunct Discovery Kids channel—Goosebumps introduced generations of horror fanatics to the genre. Much like Kix's old slogan, it was "Kid-Tested. Parent-Approved." Side effects did include trauma, for the family-friendly supernatural stories were unabashedly dark, but it developed a loyal fan base. In the case of the Hulu/Disney+ update developed by Nicholas Stoller ("Bros") and Rob Letterman (who also helmed the fun 2015 feature romp starring Jack Black), there's something strange in seeing Stine's classic figures getting a facelift to appeal to the "Stranger Things" crowd, even if it starts off promising.
Set in the foggy, coastal town of Port Lawrence, paranormal events start to surface upon the arrival of the new English teacher, Nathan Bratt (Justin Long), who moves into the cursed house where owner Harold Biddle (Ben Cockell) died in a fire in 30 years prior. After a chance crossover event at a Halloween party thrown at the old Biddle house by high schoolers, abandoned relics—a polaroid, a cuckoo clock, a possessed mask, and worms—make their way into several students' lives. Those affected are a jock football star named Isaiah (Zack Morris), his geeky neighbor friend Margot (Isa Briones), his best friend James (Miles McKenna), also serving as comic relief, rebellious dim-witted daredevil Lucas (Will Price), and lonesome tech wizard Isabella (Ana Yi Puig). Those designated items throw the kids into horrific situations they must come to on their own to face. Once they realize all the ends lead to the Biddle house, the teens band together to uncover a mystery that involves the sins of their parents.
"Goosebumps" plays all the hits for modern horror TV aimed at teens. The lead characters fit into the typical high school archetypes—jock, nerd, rebel, comic relief, and loner—full of angst, filtered through a gothic, melodramatic approach to storytelling. It unabashedly features profanity, mature themes involving adultery and grief, and doesn't stray from showing various horror beats from body to creature on screen. Its plotting follows a continuous eight-episodic structure, with each episode often ending in a cliffhanger designed to get you to binge the whole season at once. I can see through the ruse. Unlike Slappy, I ain't no dummy.
This "Goosebumps" iteration gets close to Stine's spirited tone primarily thanks to the teen ensemble cast, all adding a distinctive charm to their lively performances and camaraderie. Specifically, Zack Morris and Miles McKenna's buddy dynamic provides a nuanced refreshment in a straight-jock and gay class clown act as best friends. Their shared charisma creates an equilibrium for comedy that adds fun to the dramatic beats. On the other end of the realism spectrum, Justin Long, whose Bratt gets possessed by Biddle's spirit at the end of its initial episode, acts completely unhinged, relishing in comical movement and cringe-inducing gross-out gags. He's a joy whenever he is on-screen.
Despite the familiar story structure, the season's first half puts a fun spin on the source's anthology nature. Each episode is titled after an iconic "Goosebumps'' book, clarifying what featured item will be centralized. The first five out of eight episodes center around one of its five leads and how a relic they find at the Biddle's haunted house Halloween party affects them. Each episode centers on a teen, the social issue they have, their strained relationship with their parents, the Biddle-baggage their parents are gaslighting their kid from uncovering, and how their possessed artifact challenges them to face their demons. And everyone's problems are simultaneous, making the timeline fun to follow while setting up the mystery in the background without overstepping too much to the frontward spotlight. It's tonally consistent with the newfound direction, and the writing does a decent job of blending with its other counterparts without trying too hard to say something like "Riverdale" did.
Alas, when the series hits the midpoint and everyone's timelines converge, the writing then leans into all the tropes seen in every teen drama with the same unappealing mundanity as other teen supernatural shows from recent memory. The scares are thrown to the backseat while the dramatic beats are doused with soap, prominently focusing on the interpersonal relationships between the kids and the adults. The small-town coastal setting gives way to a tight-knit mystery that has the potential to further its developing theme of generational trauma, but its intentions to abide by the "hot topic" horror bible becomes prominent above anything else. By the moment the plotting, as James points out, "gets a little too cis-het in here," involving a forced love triangle—that also does the only Black female character dirty—I felt as if I was transported back to the 2010s when YA genre/soap opera film adaptations pandered to the young masses. What starts as an enjoyable, mature take on Stine's classic series with some inventiveness in its structure and storytelling becomes a generic horror series built to keep the "Stranger Things" crowd happy as they wait for their favorite show's final season.
Whole series was screened for review. "Goosebumps" premieres on Disney+ on October 13th.