Every week Robert Saucedo shines a spotlight on a horror movie worth checking out. Today: Reader beware, you’re in for a scare.
I have mad respect for R.L. Stine. Between 1992 and 1997, Stine wrote 62 books in the Goosebumps series — not counting spin-offs and special editions. Not all of the books may have been winners but at least Stine was consistent in his output — if not his quality.
Recent news has surfaced that Stine’s book series, a popular line of children’s horror stories, has been optioned by Sony Pictures. The upcoming movie will not be the first time Stine’s books have been adapted, though. Most young adults who grew up in the early ‘90s will remember the Goosebumps television show — a low-budget, Canadian shot program that aired Saturday mornings on Fox Television in the States.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has recently released two new collections of Goosebumps episodes on DVD — right in time for Halloween. Risking permanently damaging fond memories of the show I retained from my childhood, I jumped headfirst into the two releases — The Blob That Ate Everyone and Go Eat Worms! (The exclamation point is the DVD’s title’s, not mine.)
Each DVD comes with three episodes — for a total running time of a little over 60 minutes. Since this show was shot in the mid ‘90s, the program is full-frame and anything but high-definition. There are no special features of any kind on either DVD. The episodes are seemingly chosen at random as there is no underlying theme or continuity apparent.
The first episode on The Blob That Ate Everyone is, well, “The Blob That Ate Everyone.” First aired in July of 1997, the episode is a fairly straightforward Twilight Zone-inspired episode centered on the wish fulfillment fantasy of a typewriter that brings anything to life once it is written. Because this is a children’s horror show and not real life, young Zack Beauchamp does not automatically use his gift to conjure into existence Playboy centerfolds to play naked freeze tag with him. Instead, Zack fancies himself a burgeoning horror writer and uses the typewriter to work on his latest opus — a story about a man-eating blob that rampages through town.
Due to the low budget of the show, said blob is little more than a mass of foam and ducktape — no more frightening than a monster from an early episode of Mighty MorphinPower Rangers.
Once Zack realizes the power he wields and the monster he has unleashed upon his town, he must use his imagination to stop it. He could have probably set fire to the blob and make for a much more entertaining climax, Zack goes with imagination. Audience’s loss.
“Piano Lessons Can Be Murder” is probably the most complex and interesting of the episodes. When Jerry moves into a new town he attempts to impress a neighborhood girl by taking piano lessons. Unfortunately, Jerry picks the wrong teacher — and by wrong teacher, I mean an overly hands-on Salvador Dali meets Santa Claus lookalike obsessed with Jerry’s beautiful, beautiful hands. Don’t worry; R.L. Stine didn’t tackle pedophilia in his stories(a shame because everybody knows that is one of the scariest things a child has to face growing up — screw Beasts from the Easts or Phantoms of the Auditorium; pedophiles are real).
No, Jerry’s piano teacher isn’t a would-be Michael Jackson; he’s something far sillier. But spoiling the secret would take away the biggest thing the episode has going for it. “Piano Lessons Can Be Murder” mixes in a traditional ghost story with a sci-fi twist to come up with something that’s appropriately quirky and just a little stupid — in other words: Perfect for kids!
Finally, “My Hairiest Adventure” is the best of the bunch. Larry Boyd is an allergy-ridden teen afraid of dogs. Larry finds his dreams of rock and roll stardom derailed when a decision to use some expired fake tanning lotion causes him to grow hair in some very unusual places. Or is the cause of Larry’s rapid puberty something far more bizarre than old bronzer? Thanks in large part to the decision to include voice-over narration and a really quirky plot twist, “My Hairiest Adventure” takes the prize for the most fun you’ll have with a nearly fifteen-year-old micro-budget children’s show this Halloween.
Over on Go Eat Worms!, the first (and title) episode deals with a science geek with the unfortunate hobby of torturing animals in the name of science. While everybody knows that kids that torture animals eventually grow up to be serial killers, I wouldn’t go calling Agent Starling quite yet for Todd Barstow, the “hero” of “Go Eat Worms!” You see, the critters Todd likes to screw around with (freezing, burning, cutting in half) are just earthworms. Nobody cares about worms, right? Well, worms care about worms. Tired of his antics, a group of sentient worms commit premeditated pranks on the little putz — sending worm kamikazes to dive bomb Todd’s spaghetti lunch or crawling into bed with the kid for a little inappropriate nocturnal wiggling. When the kid doesn’t learn his lesson, the worms up the ante and send the Baby Huey of earthworms after him. Don’t expect a Graboid-sized monstrosity, though. Goosebumps‘ budget, as I mentioned above, was rather miniscule so the episode’s producers had to settle with lame-ass puppets. My biggest question after seeing the episode? Are there really kids who find worms scary? If so, they need to watch the evening news more — or at least read about bedbugs. Now those are some scary insects.
In “Bad Hare Day,” Tim Sawnson is a wannabe magician who finds himself tricked by a talking rabbit into meddling in the affair of real wizards. This episode doesn’t really try to be scary as much as clever. Speaking of clever, by this point it’s becoming painfully obvious that R.L. Stine writes his books’ titles first, plots second. But seriously — props to Stine for trying to make rabbits scary. Unfortunately, Stine didn’t succeed with crafting frightening tales of worms and he doesn’t quite succeed with rabbits either.
The final episode on the disc is the creepiest of the bunch. “Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes” does for lawn displays what Child’s Play did for dolls and redheaded children — scar children with a lifelong fear of small unnatural monstrosities.
When Joe’s dad brings home a pair of garden gnomes, the kid discovers that the creepy little statues come alive at night to wreck mischief and leave Joe with the blame. Joe sets out to prove that the lawn gnomes are coming alive at night but winds up learning that he should have just left well enough alone when the gnomes reveal their bloodthirsty nature.
The creepiest part of the episode is the fact that the gnomes are played by little people in expressionless gnome masks. There are some truly frightening visuals within the episode — I’m talking fetish porn from the deepest, darkest recesses of the Internet creepy.
Goosebumps was always second fiddle in my book to Are You Afraid of the Dark? when it came to children’s horror shows. Both dummied down or sanitized the plot of classic horror tropes for a pre-teen audience but there was always something cheep about Goosebumps. The budget was too small for the show to really develop a style of its own — relying on inexpensive special effects, an overabundance of light filters to make up for a lack of visual tone, and some of the worst child actors this side of Jake Lloyd.
The episodes contained in Go Eat Worms! and The Blob That Ate Everyone are not overly special or well done. The episodes don’t quite hold up well to this Generation Y’er with fond memories of R.L. Stine’s literary works but I’m no longer the target audience. The DVDs are perfect for a young child just dipping their toe in the horror genre, though — and a hell of a whole lot more appropriate than taking a seven-year-old to go see Saw 3D.
If you’re going to pick one DVD, go with The Blob That Ate Everyone — as its episodes are far more entertaining and memorable than the others’. But, with only three episodes per disc, you might want to go ahead and pick up both. Otherwise, if you find your child is a future horror buff, you might just find yourself having to watch the same three Goosebumps episodes over and over again. Now that would be scary.
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.