The 2015 adaptation of R.L. Stine’s popular “Goosebumps” book series was way better than it had any right to be. Starring Jack Black as a freewheeling version of the author, the film was a kid-friendly Halloween spookfest that examined the way we use horror as a coping mechanism in everyday life. It was smart and silly and scary, anchored by the inimitable Black. But the follow-up, “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” is a serious disappointment, starting with how Black is barely in it. Less Black, less ’bumps, as it turns out.
It’s not just the lack of Black that has a detrimental effect. There’s a changeover of writing and directing teams, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and director Rob Letterman replaced by writer Rob Lieber and director Ari Sandel. Darren Lemke stays on as co-writer, but no holdovers from the original cast, either. Turning it into an anthology franchise, there’s a new group of kids in a new town, Wardenclyffe, N.Y., who are taken in by the evil machinations of ventriloquist dummy Slappy.
Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his friend Sam (Caleel Harris) pick up Slappy at an old creepy house while doing a junk run. Of course they promptly recite the incantation found in his pocket, as one does when one happens upon a terrifying puppet, and bring him home. Slappy, who apparently longs for a family, is happy to ingratiate himself with Sonny’s sister, Sarah (Madison Iseman), a senior struggling with a scummy boyfriend and college applications, and their harried, snarky mom, Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey).
The plot is of little consequence. All that matters is once Slappy’s out of the box, he wants to make some mischief, and mischief he makes, with the assistance of all the creatures he brings into existence. But instead of raising R.L. Stine’s monsters from the page, Slappy merely animates every Halloween decoration in sight. One sequence features Slappy raising every inert costume and seasonal tchotchke from the Halloween aisle at the drug store, turning the classic creatures into zombie monster minions. Halloween-obsessed neighbor Mr. Chu (Ken Jeong) also provides great fodder for Slappy with his elaborate holiday decorations.
But, none of the flimsy nylon monsters are scary at all. An enormous spider made out of balloons just doesn’t have the gravitas. This is a kid-friendly monster mash, but it’s truly no graveyard smash. All the clever references have been drained from the script. Even the cute and creative monsters, like the giant gummy bears that attempt to devour Sonny and Sam, are not enough to enliven the story, which simply throws chaos at a basic plot in an attempt to disguise that it’s incredibly thin.
The only performance worth mentioning is Jeong, who brings his energetic weirdness to a rather small role. His character has the kind of genuine, off-the-walls enthusiasm for spooks and scares that would have made the movie a blast to watch had it centered around him. His character operates much like Black’s Stine does, offering a safe entry into the world of monsters and ghouls to the children around him. It’s a shame “Goosebumps 2” misses the mark so badly, when the first film was such a surprising and delightful hoot.