Zach (Dylan Minette) is a teenage boy upset at having to leave New York City for the small town of Madison, because although he wants to support his widowed mother Gale (Amy Ryan) in her new job there as high school vice principal, he feels he is abandoning a great life in the Big Apple for the obscurity that awaits him in the middle of nowhere in particular. Nevertheless, he decides to make the best of it, and when his aunt Lorraine (Jillian Bell) shows up to lift their spirits, he thinks maybe things could be worse - and when he drops a cardboard box full of his stuff on the way up the path, he is more convinced because an attractive teen neighbour called Hannah (Odeya Rush) strikes up a conversation. What could possibly go wrong?
If you've ever read a Goosebumps book then you may have more than an inkling, for this was the big screen version of the immensely popular R.L. Stine horror novels. He was a sort of Stephen King for teens, well, okay, Stephen King is probably Stephen King for teens, but Stine pitched his spooky tales a little more towards the younger market exclusively and was rewarded with hundreds of millions of sales as a result, many more than King in fact. This was alluded to in the script, for it featured Stine as a character, played by Jack Black as an embittered recluse which was a conceit dreamt up for the film to work out a way of distilling the essence of what amounted to umpteen books into one conglomeration of fright fiction.
It is Black's Stine who lives next door, and Hannah is his daughter, only he is extremely protective of her, home schooling her and not allowing her to talk to anyone else, much to Zach's consternation when he takes an interest. If this owed a debt to any forebears in the horror scene, it would be the material from the nineteen-eighties, as this started out as a variation on Fright Night with the young hero fascinated by next door, then wound up mixing Gremlins (small town terror chaos) with The Monster Squad (monster archetypes invade) in its debt owed to Steven Spielberg and his productions from that era with its small, lightly idealised community under siege, much in the way Jumanji had been for the nineties.
Yet however the movie's Stine might have balked (Black keeps getting aggrieved references to how his Stine isn't considered the King of horror when a certain Steve is still around), this story owed something to the author's magnum opus of the eighties It as well, revolving around a series of episodes where the young cast (Ryan Lee joined the two younger leads as the very fine comic relief Champ) faced up to their fears through the medium of the sort of chills they had from reading or watching scary books, movies and TV, therefore overcoming the more realistic fears that life threw at them in the process. So Zach may be struggling with outwitting a werewolf or an enormous praying mantis, but at the same time he is dealing with the mortality of his parents and the nerves that finding new love can bring.
Fair enough, this was essentially a comedy with action sequences framed around horror for the younger set, but it was well aware of the value of "safe scares" and how they could prepare the viewer for the more serious business they may encounter at some point as well. Though make no mistake, this was a very funny film, with some excellent one-liners from the screenplay by Darren Lemke who adapted the concept from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski when it was originally planned as a Tim Burton production. Oddly enough, both Lemke and director Rob Letterman came from animation works that did not hint they had something this good in their capabilities, and while it remained derivative (a charge you could put at Stine's door if you were feeling dismissive) and even repetitive, the cast were terrific, and what they were called upon to carry out allowed them to be highly amusing, with the case of Minette and Rush proving appropriately heroic too. What this did right was treat the material not as some corny joke, but as something with the value its target audience saw in it, affectionate and respectful, yet irreverent too, a tricky combination nicely achieved. Music by Danny Elfman.