Editor’s Note: This review covers the first five episodes of the new series.
Over the course of the last 30 years, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps has wreaked spine-chilling havoc on its adolescent audience, spreading its spookiness over 200 books, 74 episodes of television and two feature films. The green, goopy letters of the franchise’s recognizable moniker have dribbled an indelible mark on the gateway to horror fandom, infusing generation after generation of burgeoning fright seekers with a nostalgic love for haunted masks, cursed cameras and one particularly spiteful ventriloquist dummy.
And now, Goosebumps is back once more, repurposing and reimagining R.L. Stine’s indelible monstrosities for a new generation. Unlike any version of the series that’s come before, this new iteration of Goosebumps strips away its spookily silly, candy-colored reputation to find the fun and the fear beneath its pockmarked surface.
Veering away from the direct adaptation, anthology driven show of the late 90s, Goosebumps chooses the path of combining and reworking Stine’s seminal books into a new narrative, not all that dissimilar from the 2015 film. However, unlike the theatrical Goosebumps, the show drops the meta-text, slapstick comedy and overt absurdism in lieu of mystery, drama and suspense. While levity and witticism is alive and well in the show, the moments of relief are interspersed amongst the dark goings on with care and characterization, never undermining the show’s intent to playfully grip and unnerve.
Set in the small harbor-side town of Port Lawrence, the series follows five high schoolers as they attempt to wade through the murky lies that their parents and the town have propagated. At the core of the mystery is the horrific, fiery death of a boy named Harold Biddle, played by Ben Cockell. While his demise occurred three decades removed from the core cast’s high school years, Biddle’s penchant for worms, frightening masks and photography become alarmingly relevant to the teenagers as the foggy mist hovering over the truth of their families’ shared past slowly begins to clear.
The first portion of the show revolves around Halloween night, showcasing the various overlapping experiences of terror that the core characters have in and around a costume party held at the old Biddle house. It’s there that the group of five teenagers are bound together by the strange objects which pepper Harold Biddle’s former home: a camera, a mask, an old worm aquarium, a cuckoo clock and a forgotten journal. The mystery stems from their experiences, revealing a sinister underbelly to their parents’ inscrutable past.
Tonally the show is more in line with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) than any of the series’ own self-titled offerings, focusing on interpersonal drama across multiple generations while telling a long form story of supernatural revenge. Developed by Nicholas Stoller and Rob Letterman, there was clearly an effort to age-up the property for a crowd that may have been familiar with the 2015 film as a younger audience. Letterman brings the banter, coming-of-age sensibilities and fun of the Goosebumps film he helmed while ensuring the stakes are raised, both emotionally and practically speaking. While the abominable snowman was an imposing sight in the original film, there was never any doubt the characters in its path would be spared— the same cannot always be said given the nature of the threats in this new version.
Each episode is infused with the essence of a classic Goosebumps book or ideology while tying in to the greater story at play. While this strategy does not always make for holistic narrative coherence, it’s an amusing mechanism that ensures the show flows with the lifeblood of R.L. Stine’s creations. Not to mention, other than Night of the Living Dummy, these are titles that went largely unexplored in the big-screen adaptations, fleeting references aside.
In the pilot, Say Cheese and Die!, an unearthed camera predicts certain doom for the star football player and his friends. In the follow up episode The Haunted Mask, a mask discovered in the same basement as the aforementioned camera affixes itself to a girl’s face and begins to corrupt her nature. Later there’s an episode titled Reader Beware, not pulling from a specific book, but manifesting the series’ famous tagline as a threat in and of itself. These elements run parallel to the core plot and admittedly tie in more cohesively as the show progresses, serving as proxies for their original stories as opposed to undeviating representations.
Some might complain that these fresh interpretations of classic Goosebumps lore are too far removed from their origins. The haunted mask, for example, is plain, white and nondescript, reminiscent of a blank faced acting muse. A near unrecognizable relative of its snarling, green-faced progenitor, the mask is hollow until someone puts it on. While it changes and evolves, eventually resembling more of what lifelong Stine aficionados know and love, the alteration is indicative of how the series handles its core property at large. Nostalgia and familiarity may well drive interest and viewership but the story being told is a new one.
The real strength of the show is its cast, playing their intertwining parts with strategic charisma and enigmatic intention that serves the unfolding puzzle of death and deceit quite well. Zack Morris is Isaiah, the popular football star and appropriately self-confident best friend of his lifelong neighbor Margot, played with sarcastic charm, unyielding empathy and vital intelligence by Isa Briones. Filling out the teenage group is Miles McKenna as the hilarious James grappling with being openly queer in a small, closed-minded town, Ana Yi Puig as the toughened and socially isolated Isabella and Will Price as the endearingly thoughtless, stunt-obsessed Lucas.
Justin Long stands out as Nathan Bratt, the new English teacher and inheritor of the old Biddle house. His bumbling, socially awkward high school educator quickly becomes something much more and Long brings both mirth and bravado to the key role in equal measure. Rachel Harris plays Nora, Lucas’s mother, with unease and unearthly knowing, while Rob Huebel brings a hapless, sympathetic eye to Colin, Margot’s father, harboring a secret of his own. The vast cast of players are all in sync, offering an ensemble of interesting and contrasting people to navigate Goosebumps’ labyrinthian trials.
In some ways a spiritual successor to Leigh Janiak’s own Stine adaptation of The Fear Street Trilogy with its tale of inherited, generational trauma, Goosebumps changes out its neon green for the drab hues of blue and gray, settling in the rusty, decaying boats, processing plants and rocky shores of a place haunted and corrupted by murder. While it doesn’t throw Stine’s catalogue of monsters at the screen in the frenzied fashion of the films, it succeeds in harnessing the souls of its chosen novels, transposing them to the grand arc it’s attempting to unfold.
A Cuckoo clock, worms and perhaps even a dummy make their home in Goosebumps, as they have for more than 30 years. The green, goopy letters still drip, even if the slime has turned to black ever encroaching ink, blotting its parchment like rot slowly creeping. As it has for generations before, it will make its mark on a new group of wary viewers, staining their imaginations with living dummies, masses of wriggling invertebrates and masks that wear their wearers. It’s Goosebumps, after all, and I don’t think there’s a reader or viewer of its many incarnations that won’t be in for its scares.