Goosebumps review: The franchise returns, with frights and feels

With shows like Stranger Things captivating adults, teens, and tweens with a serialized horror approach, it was only a matter of time before good old Goosebumps got back in the game. Though there have been two film adaptations released in the previous decade (starring Jack Black as the series’ author R.L. Stine), not since the mid-to-late ’90s has the franchise dipped into television, at that time presenting its terrifying tales in an anthology format not unlike its Teen Nick contemporary Are You Afraid of the Dark?. For the 2023 version (which premieres October 13 on Hulu and Disney+), Rob Letterman and Nicholas Stoller are at the helm, cooking up a series with a consistent cast and setting, some escalating thrills, teenhood allegories, and even a few laughs.

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We find ourselves in Port Lawrence, Washington, for some nice, dreary, Pacific Northwest vibes, and the year is 1993. Some poor teen, in a great big house by himself, goes into his creepy basement, drops a worm in a terrarium, and does a little journaling before fiery tragedy befalls him. Next, we flash forward to 2023 and start meeting the kids who are about to get spooked in all kinds of ways: talented and likable quarterback Isaiah; his snarky, gay best pal James; his brainy, beautiful neighbor Margot; his jealous girlfriend Allison; a daredevil kid, who likes to skateboard off of buildings and things, named Lucas; and some girl, ever trolling fools in the shadows, who we later learn is Isabella. We’re also introduced to some parents: Lucas’ mom Nora (Racheal Harris), who owns the local cafe; Margot’s dad Colin (Rob Huebel!), who is also the school guidance counselor; and Isaiah’s pa Ben, the contractor responsible for fixing up the newly inhabited great big house where that kid died in the series’ first moments.

And who is that freaky home’s inhabitant? Why that would be Nathan Bratt (Justin Long), a high school English teacher and descendant of the home’s original owner who is straight up stoked to be able to own a place on his crappy teacher’s salary, whatever its baggage—that is, until those rascally teens throw a party there, picking up haunted objects, pissing off that dead kid’s spirit, and accidentally letting it loose to possess Bratt and use him to exact revenge on his peers who wronged him long ago. So yeah, the parents and teens we met? Their past and present storylines are connected. Stuff went down in 1993 and now it’s bubbling back up to the surface. The ghouls are gonna get ‘em—and it’s … meaningful?

You see, the manner in which these haunted possessions mess with the kids touch on each one’s unique emotional baggage. Worried about the future? You get a haunted Polaroid camera that develops ominous images of horrors yet to come. Feeling like you have to be a million different versions of yourself to get by as a queer kid in a small town with only a handful of other gays? Bam! You’re getting cloned. Having too much fun taking out your inner rage by trolling kids online? You turn into a troll. We get it. It’s borderline Willy Wonka-esque, but with even more body horror (especially in the “Go Eat Worms” episode—yeesh!) and a lot less weird judgment. It’s kind of brilliant, if a little gimmicky. Each episode title comes from a classic Goosebumps book and offers some spin on the spooky situation introduced in print form. But because it’s handled in a way that resonates with the characters’ personal journeys, the approach is satisfying rather than stale.

The acting helps. The teens play their respective roles with strength and poignancy, rendering their angst in believable, sympathetic ways. Huebel and Harris work well in their more dramatic, less comedic roles too. The one performance that’s a little bit of a head-scratcher is Long’s. Right off the bat, he’s a pretty solid straight man, reacting to the partying teens’ antics. He’s perfect as a guy trying to be the “cool teacher,” and it’s a clever turn that a character like that ends up a vessel for a teenage ghost. His take on a ’90s-cool teen voice, all slack-jawed and imprecise in its articulation, is amusing, and watching him dance around to “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers when the teen’s spirit is first enjoying its new body is good for a chuckle. Despite those many positives, the tone gets weird when he’s meant to be scary at certain points. We haven’t really been afraid of him up till now, but suddenly we’re supposed to be? This leads to a situation where, when the spirit possessor fights the person possessed, Me, Myself & Irene style, it’s neither funny nor scary enough to make us feel much, unfortunately. But not freaking people out too hard may just be the point in a family-friendly horror comedy like this one, so it’s hard to say what to make of this.

All told, this is a fun show, brought to life with emotional depth and developmental sensitivity. A theme introduced as early as the first episode is that teens are wired to engage in risky behavior and can sometimes suffer some steep consequences for it. Though the parents are adults now, their worst teen moment continues to haunt them, and the modern-day teens are sort of living out that same trauma. There’s an inheritance there, in the fantastical sense of this show, but also in life as parents see themselves in their teenagers’ fresh, bonehead moves. And as the kids in this series are going through all of this supernatural crap and making said bonehead moves, a line that keeps recurring is some version of “I can’t believe we still have to go to school”—something many a student has uttered in recent years with the combined existential horrors of pandemic, climate catastrophe, and upticks in violence. With this in mind, it’s kind of remarkable what the Goosebumps team has done here: taken a campy horror franchise and made it resonant, managing to mix frights and feels.

Goosebumps premieres October 13 on Hulu and Disney Plus

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