“GOOSEBUMPS 2: HAUNTED HALLOWEEN” — 2 stars — Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Madison Iseman; PG (scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and language); in general release
Jack Black has now been featured in two spooky movies this fall. But where Eli Roth’s “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” felt a little too dark and frightening for the kids who should have been its target audience, Ari Sandel’s more kid-friendly “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” runs into trouble elsewhere.
Black, who played R.L. Stine in 2015's “Goosebumps,” revives his role as the author of the popular children’s horror novels. In the first film, kids accidentally use Stine’s vast library to unleash a parade of monsters on an unsuspecting town.
Though Stine is more of a background character this time, the plot is pretty much the same. Sarah (Madison Iseman) is a high school senior in the small fictional town of Wardenclyffe, New York, hoping to get accepted to Columbia University. In the meantime, she’s stuck watching her younger brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris) while her single mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey) works at the local nursing home.
Sonny is obsessed with science — for the upcoming science fair, he’s building a working mock-up of onetime resident Nikola Tesla’s “Tesla Tower,” which produced wireless energy. When he and Sam aren’t getting bullied at school, they’re pursuing a side business called “Junk Bros.,” removing junk from old houses in the hopes of discovering lost treasures.
One of the calls leads the Junk Bros. to an abandoned home where Stine used to live. After a little digging, they discover one of the author’s unfinished books, and opening it unleashes a creepy ventriloquist doll named Slappy (voiced by Black).
Initially, Slappy seems like a godsend, dealing with the boys’ bullies and doing their homework in a matter of seconds. But it's soon apparent that Slappy’s true intentions are much more nefarious, and before long, the demon doll unleashes the full force of Halloween on poor Wardenclyffe, with only Sarah and the boys to stop it.
Unlike “House With a Clock,” Sandel’s “Haunted Halloween” operates in more family-friendly spooky territory that should work for younger kids. The downside for the adults traveling along is that screenwriter Rob Lieber’s story is a mess of plot holes and internal inconsistencies. If you take a step back and squint, the movie makes enough sense, but pay any closer attention and the cracks start to show.
Some of the cracks come from unconvincing performances, while others involve nonsensical character motivations — apparently Slappy’s deepest wish is to be part of a family. The premise is weak, and moviegoers are left with a lot of Halloween-themed mayhem with no substance — but that mayhem may be right up the younger kids' alley.
Fans of Stine’s books should know “Haunted Halloween” isn’t a direct adaptation of one of the author’s stories. The credits note that the film is “based” on Stine’s books — plural — and that may partially explain the sloppy execution. With a better story, “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” might have been a nice option for the entire family. As is, it’s one that will likely leave adults shaking their heads.
“Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” is rated PG for scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and language; running time: 90 minutes.