Synopsis: After accidentally releasing supernatural forces, five teenagers must find a way to work together and recapture them while discovering their parents’ secrets from their teenage years
Stars: Justin Long, Rob Heubel, Rachael Harris, Zack Morris, Isa Briones, Ana Yi Puig, Miles McKenna, Will Price
Director: Rob Letterman
Running Length: 10 episodes (8 screened)
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: What makes Goosebumps so appealing on screens, big and small? Author R.L. Stine’s spooky series of short chapter novel books for YA readers have been colossal library hits since 1992, with well-worn copies barely able to stay on shelves, and it didn’t take long for Hollywood (or more to the point, Canada, Hollywood North) to come calling. An original series of 74 episodes was produced and syndicated, followed by two big-screen adventures in 2015 and 2018 that blended elements from multiple novels, and all have been well-received, if slightly unable to nail, what made Stine’s slim paperbacks such terror treasures.
In 2023, Nicholas Stoller (Bros) and Rob Letterman (who directed the 2015 Goosebumps film) returned to Stine’s well for this 10-episode Hulu/Disney+ series released in conjunction with their Huluween celebration. The first five episodes will be released on Friday, October 13th, with the remaining five appearing for the next consecutive Fridays, meaning you’ll be watching the finale just before Thanksgiving. Employing many of the same stories that have been covered in the original series and films, I had to wonder why Stoller, Letterman, and Hulu would want to revisit a property that has never gone away entirely and whose recent filmed outings are relatively fresh on the brain and playlist rotation.
Based on the first eight episodes released to screen, this take on Goosebumps is aimed at an older reader but still firmly in the TV-PG category. While it holds back from being too scary and restrains itself from excessive gore and profanity (this is still produced by Sony and Scholastic Entertainment, after all), it doesn’t shy away from a real-world intensity that gives it a spiked bite.
In Port Lawrence, Washington, a 1993-set prologue introduces us to the home of Harold Biddle, which will be the setting for many a haunted event over the following decades. In 2023, the new owner, Nathan Bratt (Justin Long, Dear David), is starting as a teacher at the local school where a quartet of teenagers all have their typical dramas to contend with. Unaware Bratt has moved into the Biddle home, the teens and their friends have a party at the infamous mansion and stir a spirit with a score to settle.
Innocuous objects from the home are harbingers of doom as they each hold a magic that threatens to derail or destroy the lives of the teens and their loved ones. A mask, when worn, gives a vicious voice to an outcast that feels unheard, a cuckoo clock can manipulate time but has unforeseen consequences for the user, a Polaroid camera predicts dark futures, a detailed scrapbook pulls the reader in in more ways than one, and pet worms…well, I won’t spoil that one for you. Then, of course, Goosebumps pros will look for Slappy, the ventriloquist dummy, who doesn’t let anyone speak for him.
If you can make it past a shaky first episode that comes across as super try-hard and get into the engaging remaining chapters, this series will surprise you. I had trouble starting with it early on, but once I settled in, I found the 40-minute episodes fast and fun, a perfect rainy night watch as Halloween draws near. The cast comprises a mixture of fresh faces and veteran character actors like Rob Heubel (Valley Girl) and Rachael Harris (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), in addition to Long getting a decent workout playing a man possessed by a naughty entity.
I feel like Goosebumps is an eternal force, and this series won’t be the last we’ll hear of Stine’s world. With two episodes held back from critics’ eyes, I’m unsure if the door is open for another season or if Stoller and Letterman considered this a one-and-done project. If they can maintain the playful frights and easy spooks that have come so far, then Goosebumps may have finally found the perfect medium to pair with the novels.