‘Goosebumps 2’ Film Review: Kiddie Horror Franchise Skids Into Sophomore Slump

This “Haunted Halloween” is something of a letdown after its sleeper-hit predecessor, but Wendi McLendon-Covey steals the show

Goosebumps 2 Haunted Halloween
Daniel McFadden/Sony

“Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” is one of those sequels where the first movie gets retold in a new way, but bigger and crazier than before. Except for the “bigger and crazier” part.

That first “Goosebumps” movie still feels like an instant cult classic, with earnest characters and an imaginative storyline that never skimps on the scares. “Goosebumps 2” plays like a somewhat ambitious straight-to-video retread. The script is more contrived than ever, the characters are largely underwritten, and the monsters look cheap and get very little to do.

That’s not to say that “Goosebumps 2” is entirely without its charms. As directed by Ari Sendal (“The Duff”), the film keeps its low-key, harmless energy at a steady simmer. Every once in a while a joke is funnier than you might expect, or a monster looks surprisingly spooky, but overall this is a safe, by the numbers Halloween family film. Imagine “Hocus Pocus,” without the interesting parts.

“Goosebumps 2” kicks off with Sarah (Madison Iseman, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”), a teenager writing her college essay about a time when she overcame her fears. She can’t think of an example yet. You might want to start taking notes, because that part’ll be important later.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s younger brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor, “It”) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris, “Castle Rock”) have started their own junk-removal business. They forgot to ask for money, but who cares! They get to keep all the neat junk they find, like a mysterious book written by R.L. Stine and a ventriloquist’s doll named Slappy (voiced by Jack Black).

Slappy comes to life, pulls their bully’s pants down, and develops a disturbing fixation on Sarah and Sonny’s mother, Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey). It’s kind of like “The Stepfather,” if Terry O’Quinn was an evil doll who wanted to be the little brother instead of the dad (which is admittedly still super-mega-creepy).

The rest of the plot finds Slappy using his magical powers to bring classic “Goosebumps” monsters to life. He also uses an old dilapidated Nikola Tesla lightning tower to animate the city’s Halloween decorations so they can… futz around, apparently? They’re kinda scary, but they have no plan, and they don’t seem to be seriously hurting anybody. (And yes, you read that right: “Goosebumps 2” is technically “Teslapunk.”)

There’s a lot that’s perfectly adequate about “Goosebumps 2,” but there’s so much that doesn’t work, like distracting logical gaps and a frustrating lack of tension. Sometimes those two problems collide, like when our young heroes discover that R.L. Stine’s book, as in the previous film, can suck monsters safely back into their fictional world. So nothing should be a threat to them ever again. But everyone forgets to use the book for a while, and for no particular reason, and 60 seconds after they remember, they lose it again. What a thrill.

“Goosebumps 2” doesn’t have the epic scale that the first film played with, even though it’s also about a town overrun with monsters. Some of the creatures are inventive — like a giant spider made out of balloons — but most of them are familiar, the mayhem is ho-hum, and the visual effects are sometimes subpar. At least two or three shots of Slappy look like they may not have even been completely finished, because the computer-generated creation definitely doesn’t look like he belongs in the same physical reality as the human characters.

Iseman, Taylor and Harris do the best they can with their underdeveloped roles, but not enough can be said of how much McLendon-Covey brings to “Goosebumps 2.” She seems to understand that at the center of these fantastical stories about adolescent kids having secret adventures, there’s always a parent who’s missing out on the most wonderful time in their lives. The “Goldbergs” star demonstrates at every turn that although Kathy is funny, she’s also perpetually she’s driven by difficult responsibilities and not having actual fun. Moreso than any other performer in “Goosebumps 2,” McLendon-Covey overcomes the screenplay’s generic archetypes and makes the character feel genuine and intriguing.

But aside from her performance and a handful of unexpectedly eerie shots, “Goosebumps 2” is a major step down for this burgeoning franchise. Perhaps the first film raised the bar a little too high, and maybe any sequel would have trouble reaching it. But even so, one would hope they’d try a little harder. R.L. Stine wrote 62 beloved books of children’s horror fiction in the “Goosebumps” series alone. How did Hollywood run out of ideas over the course of only two films?

We may never know the answer, so for now we have to take what we’ve got: a mediocre, mostly harmless kids flick that will entertain audiences with modest expectations, but which probably won’t linger in anyone’s memory like the original “Goosebumps” movie. Or the books. Or the TV series. Or “Mostly Ghostly.” Or “Fear Street.” Or “The Nightmare Room.” Or…