1 of 5 | Isabella (Ana Yi Puig) encounters a gooey monster mess in “Goosebumps.” Photo courtesy of Disney
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 9 (UPI) — After a disappointing first episode, Goosebumps, premiering Friday on Disney+, settles into a fun groove. Fortunately, five episodes premiere Friday with a new episode each Wednesday in October.
The series follows the students at the fictional Port Lawrence High as they sneak into the old Biddle house to have a Halloween party. The abandoned house is known in the area because in 1993, owner Harold Biddle (Ben Cockell) died in a fire there.
The students soon learn the house is haunted, as different artifacts start to affect each one.
For example, Isaiah (Zack Morris) finds a Polaroid camera that develops pictures that predict accidents. A mask unleashes Isabella’s (Ana Yi Puig) darkest thoughts. A cuckoo clock traps James (Miles McKenna) in a time loop.
The first hour collapses under the weight of introducing all the characters. The teenagers are too artificially precocious, nervously saying “‘Sup” or talking about getting trolled on social media.
The cast is diverse, but in the first episode, none of them acts like real people.
Margot (Isa Briones) is the closest as Isaiah’s platonic friend who calls him out for taking her for granted, but she’s still asked to play social awkwardness as extreme antisocial behavior.
James is comic relief who goes far beyond using obnoxious jokes as a defense mechanism. Fortunately, his time loop episode lets him encounter evil alternate selves who actually are more real and more fun than the real James is when he’s acting out.
The premiere episode has a cool visual of Isaiah playing football in a demon hellscape, but the artificially heightened tone of the pilot undermines it. Comic relief is a useful tool in horror to relieve tension or give a false sense of security.
It doesn’t work when the whole world is fake. What is there to be scared of when it’s artificial sitcom kids in trouble?
The series is based on R.L. Stine’s young adult horror books, but the Disney+ adaptation feels desperate to mimic social media, not the way modern kids actually speak.
Subsequent episodes peel back the superficial layers.
Isabella is the ignored and unseen teenager, which is relatable even to adults who can remember being treated that way.
Lucas (Will Price) is a goofy punk who performs dangerous skateboard stunts, but he actually lets his guard down around Margot.
Allison (Rhinnan Payne) is Isaiah’s girlfriend, jealous of Margot, and the host of the Halloween party — but not a mean girl.
Each of the first four episodes is like a short story of a different horror, though all are connected by the cast, by the Biddle legend and branching out from the Halloween party. From Episode 5 it appears the subplots converge to have the whole cast investigating the Biddle curse.
The more episodes deal with the parents, the adult cast helps ground the horror and comedy. The parents were involved with Biddle in 1993, but they are also concerned parents who have their own needs to which the show devotes at least a few scenes.
So stick with Goosebumps. The first episode is off-putting, but once the setup has passed, it becomes a fun horror show with likable characters in spite of their abrasive introductions.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.