What happened to making sure children are properly scared? Reminding them that under the bed, in the closet, lurking in the shadows or even in their dreams there are ghouls, ghosts, goblins and monsters waiting to get at them? In this day and age, where everything is triple-child-proofed and kids' feelings are never expected to dip below a harmonic line of perfect happiness, such questions may seem ludicrous - or worse, worthy of trending Twitter shaming. However, for those of us who grew up in the '90s and early '00s, childhoods filled with fright were a part of the norm - not to mention, a whole lot of fun. And there was one name in children's horror that stood high above the rest: R.L. Stine's Goosebumps.
It began as a series of just 62 books released in the early 1990s, before exploding into a worldwide phenomenon of spinoff books, a popular TV series, videos games, and so many other forms of merchandise. This year, just in time for Halloween, Goosebumps the movie will be hitting theaters, and we got to go behind the scenes and see the mix of practical effects and digital work that is being used to bring R.L. Stine's monsters to life, (literally) from the page onto the screen.
Synopsis: After moving into a small town, a teenage boy named Zach Cooper (Lost's Dylan Minnette) meets Hannah (The Giver star Odeya Rush), his new neighbor. Hannah's father R. L. Stine (Jack Black), who writes the Goosebumps stories, keeps all the ghosts and monsters in the series locked up in his manuscripts. Zach unintentionally releases the ghouls and the monsters from the manuscripts. Now Zach, Hannah, Zach's newfound buddy Champ (Super 8's Ryan Lee) and R.L. Stine must team up in order to put the monsters back where they came from, before it's too late.
During summer 2014, Screen Rant was included in a roundup of journalists who went down to the set of Goosebumps at East Mountain Studios on the outskirts of Atalanta, Georgia. We arrived on a day of filming that wasn't the most dynamic or exciting - just a couple of early scenes taking place inside of the house of R.L. Stine, played in the movie by actor/comedian/musician, Jack Black.
However, the real story wasn't what Black and his trio of young co-stars (Minnette, Lee and Rush) were doing - it was the monster factory being run by a massive crew of F/X and makeup artists, which included Monsters vs. Aliens director Rob Letterman, the team at Creature FX Inc. (Guardians of the Galaxy), Oscar-nominated costume designer Judianna Makovsky and hair stylist Adruitha Lee, who recently won an Oscar for turning bargain-bin budget constraints into the ravaged and heartbreaking look of AIDS affliction in Dallas Buyers Club.
Walking into East Mountain Studios was truly like being transported into a collective braintrust of Stine's Goosebumps books - all of them at once, as it were. Our lunch with the crew put it all in perspective: Ghouls and vampires sat eating next to an executioner, a freaky Clown and mad doctors (of both the medical and voodoo varieties), while two raptor-faced "Creeps" in hoodies lurked about doing screen tests. All the while, a massive, moss-covered and stilt-loaded body suit for Stine's famous Bog Monster loomed over us whenever we happened to pass, as if it could come to life any second and snatch us up. Needless to say, it was a unique set to be on - one that could rival most horror movie productions.
The Hardship of Kid Scares
As stated at the opening, the golden-era of having horror-themed material aimed at kids seems to have passed. Nowadays comedy and zany bells and whistles are what seem to entertain the young'ns - and in the case of movies, few kids films seem to have the same element of scariness or danger that we got in the days of Amblin Entertainment films like Goonies.
In the words of Goosebumps producer Neal H. Moritz, finding the right balance of scariness for a PG rating was probably the toughest challenge:
Screen Rant: I can't remember the last time I’ve actually seen a scary movie for kids. I remember everything we saw on set, all the amazing creature work... I was wondering in testing how difficult it was to thread that needle; to make something that was spooky fun for kids, but not too spooky for kids.
Neal H. Moritz: That was the biggest challenge, honestly. I think if you are seven years old or older, it’s appropriate for you, or at least that’s what we learned in our testing. What’s so interesting is that kids who get scared during the movie always kinda laugh right after the fact. Thy got a little scared, but it’s almost like a badge of courage that they were able to make it through. I loved that. I loved watching the kids where they’re sitting there tense, and then the scary happens, but then they laugh. I think that was the right balance of what we were trying to do. I think that Rob Letterman did an incredible job of guessing that.
SR: Do you think that’s something that has changed over time? I mean I remember growing up and watching shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark and then the Goosebumps TV series. But do you think…has it been kind of a learning experience to see this in the modern age as a harder time to kind of present this material?
Neal H. Moritz: I think that the fact that we were able to mix scare…it wasn’t just straight horror scare. That there was a lot of fun and humor in it is the thing that allowed us to take a pass at it, honestly.
Jack Black, a dad himself, had this to add, in regards to making a movie that kids can enjoy to be scared by:
Jack Black: Well, it’s something that my kids can see. And I don’t really think of it differently as making a movie for grownups or making a movie for kids. If it’s boring, it’s boring. So you want it to be entertaining. I think funny is funny whether it’s for kids or grownups. The only real difference is language. You can be just as funny, I’m convinced, in a PG movie as you can in an R. You just gotta get a little more creative.
We talked a little bit earlier about this franchise. Obviously it’s kid subject matter. We were talking about trying to bring a different Goosebumps experience outside what you would read in the book, to bring it onscreen. Were you all ever tempted to add elements to the movie that might make adults more into it, or more relatable to adults and kids at the same time - without making it PG-13 or without pushing it too far?
Jack Black: Sure. There’s jokes in there that are for the parents and for any grownups that might be in the audience. It’s a mistake to just make a movie where the whole thing is talking down to the kids, like, “OK. We’ve got to bring the IQ of this movie down because it’s a kids’ movie.” You don’t have to do that. Kids can laugh and the parents can laugh at different parts. And that’s fine. You see that will all of the great kids’ movies. What was that last…Toy Story 3? I loved it, man. That was a great movie. Yeah, a good movie is a good movie.
For producer Deborah Forte, threading the needle between scary and fun came down to choice in director:
Deborah Forte: ...Rob Letterman, our director, has, to my mind, exactly the right sensibility for this movie, because Goosebumps is that roller coaster ride of you are laughing one minute and the next minute you are screaming. It’s fun to be scared. It isn’t horror. Goosebumps is not horror. [With] Horror [it's] not really fun to be scared.
But [with] Goosebumps [it's] fun to be scared. And when you read those books and you watch the TV show, there’s a lot of humor in there. They are funny, but they are also scary. Rob is a very funny guy. And he understands scary movies in particular and how to tell a scary story. So we were very fortunate to get him and to see his vision evolve with the team that we put together here.
As Halloween 2015 creeps closer, and the marketing campaign for Goosebumps ramps up, it'll be interesting to see how children (and subsequently parents) react to the idea of a good fun scare at the movie theater. If history is any indication, a feature film could lead to a whole multimedia resurgence of the property - good news for one man in particular, R.L. Stine, who seems to approve of the movie as a launchpad:
Neal H. Moritz: We had a number of meetings with R.L. before we went to make the movie. And the scariest thing was actually showing him the movie. He loved, loved the movie. He is as big a supporter as anybody. He loves it.
Deborah Forte: Yes. We have a wonderful cameo for him. I actually don’t want to tell you too much about it, because it will ruin the fun…it’s really fun. When you see it, it’s not just he’s there. There’s a nice little encounter that’s great.
Jack Black: ....yes, I am playing R.L. Stine in name, but none of the things that are happening here actually happened in R.L. Stine's life. So it’s a fictionalized version made to be a little more…because he’s a sweet guy. Really great guy to hang out with. Funny. But he doesn’t come across as a scary or mean dude. The way that this character is written is a lot different than the way he actually is in real life. So I took lots of liberties. I don’t really look, sound, or act like him in this movie. Don’t be coming to this movie going, “I know R.L. Stine. This is no R.L. Stine!” I know there’s going to be some haters. There’s no way to stop it. So I’m not even going to try.
Was it different for you when R.L. Stine was on set?
Jack Black: Of course. Yeah. I got a little nervous. But no, it was cool. He was laughing. He was into it.
Goosebumps will be in theaters on October 16th, 2015.