Three years on from Rob Letterman’s inaugural adaptation of the popular R. L. Stine Goosebumps books, a new cast and crew have been assembled to tell much the same story in a sequel. This one lacks its forebear’s ingenuity and zest but should still give youngsters a spooktastic, Slappy-dash ride as the nights draw in.
For those who missed part one, part two continues the conceit that the film series is set within a world that actually reads the Goosebumps books. Much like in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series, open the original copies and you magically release the typed characters within their pages. Preoccupied by his work on The House With a Clock in Its Walls, Jack Black appears here only as a glorified cameo – again in the role of a fictionalised Stine – with the manuscript that kicks the plot into motion being an old, abandoned copy of the author’s first book – an unfinished ‘Haunted Halloween’ – left in his old home.
The machinations that get our new leads to the book are a little ropey. Having set up a junk disposal ‘business’, high schoolers Sonny (It’s Jeremy Ray Taylor, looking a lot older) and Sam (Caleel Harris) are recruited to clear out the old Stine haunt, with the proviso that they can keep anything they find. Long story short: they find the book, inadvertently release Slappy the dastardly ventriloquist dummy unto the world and mayhem ensues. This time around, a far creepier Slappy is voiced with cackling glee by Mick Wingert and has the power to magically animate everything from fancy dress costumes to fang-bearing gummy bears. By halfway through, it’s all gone very Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.
Haunted Halloween just about works by virtue of the relentless way script writer Rob Leiber presses on with his story. Set piece after set piece is thrown at the screen in the vague hope that at least some will land – which they do. Whilst the attacking gummy bears should give younger viewers cause to worry about the sweets they’re gobbling in the auditorium, there are some genuinely shocking transformation effects to unnerve accompanying adults. A product of Sony Pictures Animation, the film is dominated by visual flourishes of the sort Spielberg dreamed of in the eighties. A terrific score by Dominic Lewis likewise channels that decade’s fantasy family entertainment.
On the other hand, this is very lazy work: efficient but underwhelming. Oddly, all of the main characters have names beginning with the letter ‘s’. Less so, each of them is little more than a stock, lifted from a book of tropes. Sonny continues the Hollywood fixation that being overweight makes one unpopular by default, Sam is yet another black sidekick and Sarah (Madison Iseman) is the smart but cute older sister that your grandma would approve of. Wendi McLendon-Covey, meanwhile, is winning as Sonny and Sarah’s single mum, who is preposterously able to maintain a large, immaculate home in New York on a nurse’s wage.
By the time its conclusion falls flat, parents will likely be through with Haunted Halloween. There are stronger spooky treats to be found on screens large and small but no reason to think kids won’t have fun watching this one.