Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is a massive downgrade from Goosebumps (2015) in every way possible. The script is a poor rehash of the exact same concept, in which R.L. Stine’s books come to life, and it’s saddled with even more obnoxious cliché than before. Rob Letterman, the original’s director, stepped away to make a movie about Detective Pikachu (looking like a good career move now), and his replacement, Ari Sandel, simply reheats his leftovers, Haunted Halloween often feeling more like deleted scenes from its own DVD extras. Danny Elfman, the composer of the original’s score, has been replaced by Dominic Lewis, or possibly nobody—I can’t recall a single note from the music in this one. Jack Black phones in his performance, showing up for three measly scenes, his role having been reduced to Tuxedo Mask in Sailor Moon (the meme more than the manga).
Black is the only returning actor. Haunted Halloween focuses on a new cast in another town, and this time the story is about Sarah, played by Madison Iseman—amusingly, Bethany in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a role she shared with Black. Sarah is graduating high school and wants nothing more than to finish her admissions essay, get into a good college, and get the hell out of Wardenclyffe. Her mother, Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey of Reno 911! fame), asks her to look after her younger brother, Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor), for one weekend. She also has to look after Sonny’s friend, Sam (Caleel Harris), a token black kid who is inexplicably dropped off at Kathy’s house for the weekend while Sam’s father… drives away somewhere? Sonny and Sam operate a junk removal service, just as inexplicably, and all hell breaks loose when they stumble upon one of Stine’s books and unleash the evil ventriloquist dummy, Slappy, upon the world once more. (Even more inexplicably, the movie will end with the assumption that Sam just lives with all these white people now.)
Needless to say, not a lot of care is given to story, or character, or anything. Haunted Halloween makes me appreciate the first film more in retrospect. At the time, I thought Goosebumps was a clever idea let down by some mediocre storytelling. The budding romance with its predictable twists and turns had me rolling my eyes, and I was a little disappointed that so much of the film was devoted to CGI-heavy slapstick chase sequences. It felt less like a Goosebumps story and more like a typical Hollywood blockbuster, adapting a recognizable brand and hoping to lure audiences as such. But at least Letterman provided some care in the craft. There was an effort to develop and choreograph sequences around the brand’s iconography, with popular monsters from the original book series—most notably, the eponymous creatures of The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena and Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes—getting their own action scenes that feel individualistic and distinct from other scenes in the movie. The attention to detail was also evident in the various methods employed to realize these iconic monsters onscreen, from the puppetry for Slappy to the staccato rhythms of the lawn gnome animations.
Haunted Halloween only features one distinct action sequence, and that’s the gummy bear attack; but the sequence is also highly derivative of the lawn gnome attack in the first film, so that even the best moments are simply rehashes. Otherwise, the storytelling in Haunted Halloween is a muddled rush of plot events, rarely stopping to build actual scenes with beginnings, middles and ends. It’s a breathless sequence of “and then this happens” that wastes each and every character outside of the main protagonists and Slappy. Most of the monsters re-appear from the 2015 film but have absolutely nothing to do this time around. Most of the new creatures are random Halloween characters from pop culture, such as the Headless Horseman, but similarly go to waste. The obvious exception is the Haunted Mask, which makes a brief appearance, attaching itself to Chris Parnell’s face and turning him into an Igor for Slappy’s newfound role as a mad scientist.
Speaking of characters going to waste, the movie has a surprisingly decent supporting cast. Chris Parnell plays a store clerk who flirts with Sarah’s mother, and Ken Jeong appears as Sarah’s neighbor. There’s good comedic talent here, but most of these roles are glorified cameos, and unfortunately, the movie is rarely funny and nobody comes out of it looking good. Jeong plays a Goosebumps fanatic who inadvertently reveals the cynicism at the heart of Haunted Halloween. While devising a plan with the neighborhood kids to stop Slappy, he namedrops Say Cheese And Die!, the fourth book in the series. But he’s interrupted before saying anything specific about the book, presumably because the screenwriters never did their homework. That’s the secret benefit of the story’s meta concept, or at least the benefit of rehashing it for a sequel: you don’t need to read a single Goosebumps book to write this story. Look at some of the covers, put those monsters on the screen, and call it a day.
Haunted Halloween was originally called Goosebumps 2: HorrorLand, and as far as sequel ideas go, a HorrorLand story might have worked. Goosebumps HorrorLand is a spinoff series of the original Goosebumps books. It features crossover events with characters from various stories interacting, not unlike these movies. It’s also a reference to One Day at HorrorLand, the sixteenth book of the original series. It’s a logical direction given the first film’s story. Indeed, I could imagine an entire Cinematic Universe built around this idea, with HorrorLand crossover installments serving as the Avengers event films to other standalone Goosebumps story adaptations. And, of course, Stine would cameo in every one, Stan Lee style.
But that’s the old Goosebumps fan in me talking. (I still have a VHS copy of the two-part “The Haunted Mask” premiere of the old television series.) I suppose it’s easier to simply reheat the first film and toss it in theatres again. Maybe some kids will still enjoy it. Maybe some Goosebumps fanatics will still have a good time. But this is deeply cynical, pandering entertainment. Maybe we should ask a little more of our movies.