So here’s an entry I figured I had to get out there before Halloween that’s been on the backburner for a LONG time. This is like…the Beowulf or Ulysses of my blog entries. Except it’s about trashy kiddie novels adapted for the screen. The truth is I had this one partially written and I’d taken a lot of notes and screen grabs over 4 months ago (this is true, I’m not bullshitting you). I’ve even done a remix of the theme song for you guys to correspond with the write up (though it’s more incidental than actually related…I just like the theme song). Anyways I now present to you my blog post on the Canadian 90’s television series based on the books by R. L. Stine…Goosebumps. But you already knew this judging from the title of the entry.
Stand back kids…I got a lot to say on this one. This might also end up a bit more nuanced, technical and analytical than my usual fare, which might put you to sleep or totally lock your attention.
Unless you lived like…in dead house or the haunted mansion, if you were a kid in the 90’s then you knew about horror pulp in its lowliest incarnation. Goosebumps began circulating in the early 90’s around grocery stores, libraries and the like, making the rounds through the hands of eager 8 year olds with a penchant for being scared. The books were highly recognizable with their textured covers with inset lettering and the unique color scheme applied to just about every book. Though they were devoid of interior illustration and could usually be read on the crapper in about half an hour (I can attest to this personally), Goosebumps provided some cheap thrills and terrifying iconography for a younger, now drug and alcohol ridden generation of the 88-92 born crowd. A lot of little boys in my classes were familiar with the Hamster from Monster Blood, Curly the skeleton (who bafflingly didn’t actually appear in any of the books), the Mummy and of course Slappy the Dummy, who made ventriloquism terrifying forever.
So once Mr. “Stine” had made a name for himself and Goosebumps hit a sort of widespread “fame” amongst kids…merchandise was demanded. Believe me it was few and far between. I think I had some kind of Hamster Ball that you turned inside out, a Horror land themed mini pinball machine, a screaming mummy statue thing and some erasers… lowbrow shit like that. In the years since Goosebumps has gone under I’ve discovered the existence of some action figures in body bags filled with slime and I feel like I really missed something important in my childhood by not owning these. But anyways, the audience for Goosebumps demanded more…and a TV show was delivered to us right out of the depths of Canada.
The show was kind of like Tales from The Crypt or Are You Afraid Of the Dark or something…but lamer. In its lameness, it was easily one of my favorite shows when I was a kid. I enjoyed the thrill of it and waiting to see how scary the adaptations were of my favorite stories that I read on the crapper…I mean read in school. Right. Goosebumps had some kind of ongoing deal with “Scholastic”
(you guys remember those fucking catalogues?)
which ensured that I would be sent Goosebumps books through the school program at least once a month. By the time the TV show premiered with “The Girl Who Cried Monster” I was primed and ready to be jumping out of my couch on Saturday mornings, spilling my cereal all over myself. To be honest after the premiere of the show I wasn’t lucky enough to catch it on TV too often, and actually ended up watching a lot of the episodes on the VHS anthology releases (which were fucking cheap outs putting like two episodes on a VHS). My most rewatched VHS tape featured a creepy green hand on the cover touting “STAY OUT OF THE BASEMENT”. In this story, a girl’s father is actually a plant or something who cultivates plant babies in the basement. This plot was either ripped off by or ripped off from a BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (my favorite show ever) episode titled “Home and Garden” which came out in either 93’ or 94’. While I try my best to be an absolute historian of 90’s animation and pulp horror made for children, I can’t recall EVERY episode of every show’s exact air date. But anyways, this leads me to the amount of Goosebumps I had to sit through to make this “review” er…tribute.
Over the summer I tortured myself watching Goosebumps and attempting to make it through every episode of the short lived series. It started with a couple strong seasons with plenty of episodes laden with cheap props and reused child actors who were never heard from again. The show was a lot scarier actually than when I was 8 years old. Back then I was fighting off hiding behind the covers to keep the monsters away…now I’m hiding behind the covers cringing at the awful filmmaking involved in this shit. But it does have a certain charm associated with it, especially when you’ve taken a few film courses and you’re able to identify the many things wrong with it. I’ve painstakingly taken a bunch of screen caps to illustrate some of the awful masks and clichés within these episodes.
So let’s start with the episode that made me almost wet myself in fucking terror as a child…WEREWOLF SKIN.
This one appeared on one of the VHS tapes I was familiar with, but I distinctly remember seeing this one on TV as well. At the end of part 1, a werewolf jumps through the kids window and it scared the beejesus out of me…though rewatching it this scene was just as poorly done and poorly paced as the rest of the scenes in every episode. One thing that can be said for Goosebumps though is that they knew their audience. So here’s a few things I learned about Werewolf Skin:
Rules of being a good photographer:
1. Take some pictures
2. Don’t leave your camera in the jeep
Yes, within this episode, the main character (which is always a little kid btw) is dropped off at some creepy gas station to meet his extended family in some shit-nothing town which is said to contain werewolves. He wants to photograph said werewolves for his horror magazine’s contest so he can…win…or something. Right away from the first formulaic episode I began watching I began to piece together some things that ring true for just about EVERY episode of Goosebumps. Here is a brief list of notes I jotted down after sitting through like 25 fucking episodes of things that are necessary to include within a Goosebumps episode:
Opening shots and an initial “fake out” scare
Kids approach off limits place
Crazy Encounter Monsters
Kids learn how to overcome monsters by someone who somehow knows everything
Kids quickly overcome monsters using some kind of sudden lame plot device
Kids learn life lesson from their experiences
But it’s not just limited to plot devices. Character traits are also cookie-cutter within these episodes across the board. Look for the following (but dear god don’t start doing shots or you’ll get alcohol poisoning within EVERY episode of Goosebumps).
Typical character traits:
Talking to themselves
Having incredibly dumb parents
Often being an outsider or a loser
Protagonist characters say “soarey” instead of “sorry”
Often times the protagonist trusts characters that turn out evil
Striped shirts and high sitting pants
Over pronunciation and over acting
Dads often have comb overs
So we have typical flaws in the writing of the plot, the acting of the kids and the set pieces themselves, but we also have a lot of flaws on a very technical level as well. I realize that outfits and haircuts are not actually character “traits” but more external flaws, but givem the 1 dimensional nature of EVERYONE on this show, these atrocities are some of the only ways to differentiate characters. Here are some filmmaking errors that are commonly found within Goosebumps episodes, though rather than make you laugh, these tend to just make me groan or avoid looking at the screen.
Typical Editing items:
Camera pans down
Shots always held slightly too long showing people doing extraneous things in the background
Scenes of struggle are always cut for commercials because they don’t know how to edit them.
There are ALWAYS point of view shots from the monster sneaking up protagonist
Camera tilts to one side or the other
Musical scores are inconsistent and shut on and off at seemingly random moments
At this point we might as well just call this blog post an article…because I’m just getting fucking started. I’m passionate about Goosebumps. I’m not sure exactly if I like it or not, but I’m more passionate in talking about it because it seems like the sands of time have caused our generation to move on to pot and x box and move away from the finer things in life. Goosebumps is of a simpler time…anyways, here’s some funny quotes I jotted down from Werewolf skin:
“My aunts making pizza waffles and she hates it when I’m late”
“Life is a phase I’m going through”
“I happen to like big meatballs”
(in reference to obsessed) “Oooo big word”
If you haven’t yet caught on yet, this show is great for laughs. Sitting alone in my basement with the lights off (to attempt to achieve at least the allusion of a sense of atmosphere) I really felt like I needed to share this shit with somebody. Pizza Waffles? What kind of heathens are these people? Are the meatballs a sexual metaphor? Fuck it. What follows now (this is a list/note-taking intensive entry) is a list of things I personally learned from Werewolf Skin:
WEREWOLF SKIN FUCKING EXPLODES.
That’s about it. But it also serves to prove a lot of the truths we hold self…stupid…about just about every episode of Goosebumps in addition to the editing, plot related and character flaws I mentioned above. Remember how I talked about the child stars (who I imagine were not paid very much) who were re used in episodes? Let me draw your attention to ANAKIN FUCKING SKYWALKER aka Hayden Christensen who appears actually as ZANE in Night of the Living Dummy 3.
He sure grew up didn’t he? I don’t think so. He’ll always be the little boy I knew back on Tatooine. Everybodys gotta start somewhere though. And to think that Goosebumps spawned the career of the future Darth Vader also gives you an idea of the vicious magnitude of this show. I think I had the Zane episode memorized as a kid though, mostly due to the VHS tapes yet again. It’s credited by many as the scariest episode due to the annoying Dummy, Slappy who terrorizes children when the parents aren’t home one night. It’s actually got a darker tone than most of the episodes, and the stakes are somewhat higher. One thing that’s weird is people knew that this was the best BOOK within the “Dummy” book series by RL Stine so they made this episode before Night of the Living Dummy 2. In an effort to remain accurate (even though they just confused people), they kept the title at NIGHT OF THE LIVING DUMMY 3.
You may remember from the novels, that Slappy had slicked back Brown hair. Kind of like Humphrey Bogart with freckles. There was also a famous fake out within the series where Mr. Wood the dummy was actually the villain of the first Night of the Living Dummy even though it was Slappy pictured on the cover. In the television show, Slappy is just a fucker. He’s obnoxious, has a lot of puns, and what’s creepiest of all is that he doesn’t even appear to be a dummy…more like a midget wearing a helmet who chases kids through the house.
But anyways this episode isn’t half bad. In fact, I think if someone watched this episode first, they’d be given a false idea of what Goosebumps actually is. Check out these notes I took based on my gut reaction to watching this for the first time since the turn of the century:
The gradual tension build up with the dummies is great. The fake out lasts most of the episode too. I just wish it moved a little faster.
The action gets pretty slaptstick towards the end but it’s not so bad. It’s pretty tongue in cheek. How much threat could a dummy really be anyways?
-If you’ve never seen this episode before, the suspense is a lot of fun with the dummies
-Slappy’s death fake out is great. He’s one of the few monsters on this show with a shred of personality.
-killed by single lightning bolt. Plausible?
I’m not going to attempt to organize these thoughts into my “textural narrative” instead I think we’ll just cut the blog here and continue to talk about Goosebumps in PART 2. This is going to get far too lengthy and culturally irrelevant to begin to even expect people to read in one entry. As they say at the end of many a Goosebumps episode…
TO BE CONTINUED
Spoiler alert: Writing this convinced me I'm insane.