Friday, November 17, 2023

“Goosebumps” Second Half Review – New TV Series Proves These Stories Still Have Life Left in Them

Like so many of the broader Goosebumps series’ nightmarish affairs, the back half of the new Goosebumps show belongs to Slappy.

It all seemed to begin in the early 1990s when young Harold Biddle was caught in a fiery inferno. As he burned, a group of teenagers ran off into the night with one of his most prized possessions. Eventually, those teenagers grew up and had children of their own.

There’s Zack Morris’ Isaiah, the charismatic football star and his best friend James played by Miles McKenna, a fun and sarcastic rich kid dealing with the pitfalls of being one of the small town’s only openly queer residents. Ana Yi Puig plays the tough, strong and socially isolated Isabella, Will Price is Lucas, who’s as lovably affable as he is occasionally idiotic, and Isa Briones is the staggeringly charming Margot, Isaiah’s neighbor, lifelong friend and on-again, off-again crush. The core group of actors is one of the show’s greatest assets, their chemistry and empathy for one another a driving force of the long form narrative.

While the first five episodes saw the core cast attempting to navigate the curse their parents had wrought, the latter five installments serve to flesh out the history of that curse’s persisting evil. The true threat was not the obvious one and in the spirit of R.L. Stine’s twisted ethos, the story evolves beyond its ghostly origins.

Starting with Episode six, “Night of the Living Dummy,” Goosebumps begins to excavate the history of the haunted objects mined from the original series featured in the first half of the season. It seems that the nefarious magic behind the bedeviled camera, cursed cuckoo clock, haunted mask and otherworldly worms was sourced from the series’ most famous sinful dummy.

Slappy is realized onscreen in a style that harkens back to the original cover of the book series’ seventh paperback while embodying the design of a doll that might have been carved to eerie life over a century prior. Real human hair was even employed as a dummy of that sort would have had at the time, providing Slappy a damned appeal that makes him feel more dangerous than ever before. Chris Geere voices Slappy with drive and menace, his English accent lending to a seriousness that has been absent from Slappy’s more recent portrayals.

The corrupting force behind the show’s many devilish goings on, Slappy is to blame for Harold Biddle’s tortuous turn and Biddle’s desire to fulfill the dummy’s mysterious wishes is at the heart of his increasingly dangerous acts of vengeance. While Ben Cockell portrays the introverted and artistic Biddle, most of his cruelty is carried out by Justin Long. Possessed by Biddle from the second episode on, Long teeters on the edge of awkward wickedness and pathetic haplessness, delivering an electric performance that never ceases to entertain and unnerve.

Episode eight concludes the Biddle storyline, bringing the past and present of the five families’ shared trauma together in one climactic scene on the edge of a mountain in a snowstorm. Tears are shed, lives saved and Slappy is cast into the snow covered chasm to languish in isolation for what can one only assume will be the rest of his sinister days.

The end… right?

As R.L. Stine reminds viewers in a cameo voice appearance on a Podcast called “Let the Write One in,” every good story has “a beginning, a middle and a twist.” It’s a testament to the writing and structure of the show that the first eight episodes create the illusion that the story is over, the many dangling threads about the evil’s true origin and Slappy’s ultimate plans far from cleanly tied.

Episode nine delves into Justin Long’s Nathan Bratt, following him from his old life to the moment he stepped into the former Biddle residence and found himself sharing his body with an aggrieved specter. Aside from bringing in Fifi the murderous poodle from the Give Yourself Goosebumps book Please Don’t Feed the Vampire, the episode finds its way back to Slappy and reveals the ventriloquist dummy to be powered by the displaced spirit of a darkly plotting warlock who goes by the name Kanduu. Here the show finally begins to draw from later Goosebumps lore, pulling from books as recent as 2022’s Slappy Beware! and the Slappyworld entry Slappy’s Evil Twin.

The first season of Goosebumps concludes with an episode called “Welcome to Horrorland,” although it has very little to do with the book from which it derives its title. It repurposes the concept of a horror theme park to that of a traveling carnival, the type of breeding ground for the macabre and the strange where Kanduu once tended to lurk. Originally an anonymous soldier in a foreign land fighting for a cause he neither believed in nor fully understood, Kanduu wound up bleeding out from a gunshot wound in a strange cave marked with the words of a forgotten language. It’s in that cave that he discovers the secret to eternal life and the magical incantations which have the power to call forth the hordes of horrors that the world had once thought lost to myth, legend and time.

Despite the epic world-building and encroaching ancient evil, the show still manages to ground itself in an emotional place. The core cast of characters caught in the thick of Slappy’s aims are fittingly poised as the only defense between their town and the same kind of fiery death and destruction that scarred Port Lawrence to begin with. With impressive production design, startling visual effects and the added kick of adrenaline the turn in the story takes in the final two episodes, the season concludes with the same unique brand of spirited energy that its premiere hit the ground running with.

For a show based on a 30 year old property that has graced thousands of pages, countless televisions and so many theater screens the world over, Goosebumps offers a fresh perspective for audiences both familiar with R.L. Stine’s milieu and the uninitiated alike. While it plays with the franchise’s most famous props, it is not afraid to reinvent, venturing further into histories, meanings and origins in ways that no Goosebumps property ever has— on the page or the screen. Moreover, the promise of the season’s final minutes is one of compelling emotion, warped joy and astonishing horrors to come, falling completely in line with the original 62 books it’s homaging while allowing for evolution in equal measure.

The perfect amalgam of humor, horror and heart, Goosebumps encapsulates everything the series represents and has always strived to be. With satisfying character arcs, engrossing mythology and a stellar cast of incredible performers along with a world-class crew, this is a show that deserves to have a tenure befitting the franchise’s history and wealth of chilling terrors.

Readers, viewers and all around connoisseurs of R.L. Stine’s particular brand of playful monstrousness need not beware, Goosebumps is more than worthy of its laughs, tears and, of course, well earned scares.

The post “Goosebumps” Second Half Review – New TV Series Proves These Stories Still Have Life Left in Them appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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