Midway through a screening of Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, a young man sitting next to me turned and asked if I had seen the first movie. I whispered that I had. He replied at full volume: “I like this one, but I liked that one more.”
Nino, age 7, had it dead right. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is a serviceable sequel in which everyone participating does exactly what they’re supposed to do. And so, even though Nino and his elementary school cohorts will be entertained, the film itself is the cinematic equivalent of an Ikea dresser put together in a rush. It’s slightly askew, and there’s a gap between drawers, but it’ll still hold your T-shirts.
In classic adventure movie fashion, we get two best friends, Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Sam (Caleel Harris), who accidentally unleash havoc and need to fix things with the help of Sonny’s older sister (Madison Iseman) before Mom finds out. Although the film is technically a sequel, the cast is entirely new, with only Jack Black reprising his role (all too briefly) as the author R.L. Stine. And the plot — the Goosebumps books come to life! — is so similar to the first film that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Haunted Halloween was a rejected early draft.
While working as freelance junk removers (emphasis on the free), Sam and Sonny find a hidden chest in an old home that used to be owned by Stine. When they open the chest, and then open the locked book inside, they conjure talking, telekinetic dummy Slappy (also voiced by Black), who tries to join their family, first by helping them face off against bike-riding bullies, and then by throwing the boy who cheated on their sister off a ladder. Eventually — and I mean eventually — Slappy realizes that the family isn’t willing to take in a creepy magical dummy, and he instead decides to bring Halloween to life, using his powers to turn everyone’s lawn decorations and a drugstore’s worth of cheap costumes into gallivanting monsters.
That third act, in which the kids have to fend off a bevy of CGI ghoulies with the help of a Halloween-obsessed neighbor (Ken Jeong) and defeat Slappy atop a massive Tesla coil (sure), finally delivers the antics and fun the movie promises, but that comes after a hefty amount of dull filler. What child wouldn’t want to see a teenager struggle with writer’s block for her college essay, or see a family trip to a convenience store, or watch two adolescent boys carve pumpkins? And so, even though the movie restricts itself to a tight 90 minutes, the vast majority of that is low-level shenanigans, with the only worthwhile spooks coming out when you’re already fatigued.
The real magic of the movie comes in its echoes of the first — namely, Black’s performance as the Goosebumps mastermind. (The real Stine also appears in a small cameo at the end.) Black, who’s also starring in The House With the Clock in its Walls, has mastered the over-the-top acting perfect for children’s adventure movies. He’s in his best Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards host form: charming, meta, full of energy. Wendi McLendon-Covey and Chris Parnell also nail the tone, taking the movie seriously without ever being self-serious.
Unfortunately, though, Haunted Halloween squanders the intelligence and creativity of the first Goosebumps movie on a sequel that would have been more fitting as a direct-to-video release. At the end of the movie, Nino, age 7, asked me if I was scared. I said no. He said he wasn’t scared either, but he still seemed more than satisfied. “I wonder what they’ll do for the third one!” he said. C+