R.L. Stine’s impact on the kiddie cultural zeitgeist can’t be overstated. Though often written off as an ironic nineties-stalgia icon, Stine and his work have transcended generations, so much so that new entries in the popular “Goosebumps” series are still being released to this day. But not all efforts to extend the author’s hair-raising brand have met with such successful results, as evidenced by the Mostly Ghostly franchise. Their own array of preteen page-turners before taking the cinematic leap, these movies demonstrate what happens when Stine’s family-friendly “humor and horror” formula backfires miserably. With both jokes and jolts of the laziest order in tow, the flicks have nestled themselves firmly into the most vanilla of niches, rocking no boats and getting about as many emotional responses from viewers with their material. Thanks to a more pronounced feisty streak and slightly improved production value, the saga’s newest installment, One Night in Doom House, has a leg up on its predecessors, but what hints of inspiration it does have are all but drowned out by the most generic frights this side of a dollar store Halloween aisle.
By the looks of things, Max Doyle (Corey Fogelmanis) is your average high schooler. He puts up with bullies, hangs out with girlfriend Cammie (Sophie Reynolds), and entertains his friends with the occasional magic show. But little do the living know that Max’s closest confidantes are really brother-and-sister spirits Nicky (Blake Michael) and Tara (Olivia Ryan-Stern), who lend a hand with our hero’s homebrewed hauntings. Alas, he’s been slacking off in helping the two track down their missing parents, so he opts to seek help from a pro in TV ghost chaser Simon Drake (Jamie Kennedy). Unfortunately, Simon’s been possessed by Phears (Adam Tsekhman), a wicked spook whose attempts to conquer our world have been stymied time and again by a certain, supernaturally-inclined trio. But now, he’s closer than ever to completing his fiendish goal, and if Max wants to stop the ghoulish invasion, he’ll have to unlock the chilling secrets of his town’s eeriest estate: Doom House.
It’s an easy jab to take at any film whose script isn’t up to snuff, but watching One Night in Doom House really does seem as though its first draft is unfurling before our eyes. In addition to the fits of wide-eyed mugging serving as placeholders for where actual gags ought to be, the story’s focus is in constant flux, changing its mind on what it’s about and introducing what come to be important plot details on a moment’s notice. How much bearing Doom House itself has on matters tends to waver from scene to scene, and we’ve skedaddled past the halfway point by the time some heretofore unmentioned artifact is abruptly granted narrative precedence. Having sat through the previous two Mostly Ghostly outings, I expected a lax commitment to continuity as part of the package here, but even members of the flick’s grade-school target audience will pick up on its outright sloppiness in no time. Whether this is more Stine’s fault for penning an inherently crummy book to begin with or the work of writer/director Ron Oliver’s meddling in the adaptation process is a matter of debate, though in either case, the movie’s ADD-addled storytelling and out-of-touch humor do it no favors. From the requisite goofball family dynamic to the stock bully archetypes, we’ve seen each sitcommy second of One Night in Doom House a thousand times before, and instead of perking things up with some modern, subversive touches, Oliver kicks up his feet and rubber-stamps his way to the end credits.
Even those inclined to give kid-geared productions a degree of leeway may be hard-pressed to find something positive to say about One Night in Doom House. The special effects are chintzy, the kindergarten-level scares are nothing to shriek at (oh, no, not a…coffin!), and the cast’s collective disinterest is palpable. Tsekhman does what he can to act through the Phears get-up, and Kennedy at least looks to be having fun putting on his bad guy face, but the other performers seem to have taken being cast in a family fright fest to mean that all of them should adopt a zombie’s verve. This applies doubly so to Fogelmanis, a photogenic youngster who’s nonetheless responsible for one of the most detached performances in film history. Whether Max is racing to prevent an undead apocalypse or cheering on Cammie during dance practice, Fogelmanis’ delivery retains the same monotonous cadence no matter what, in what I can only assume was a bet with the dolly grip to see how quickly they could get through every shot. All that said, there are the odd qualities that, if anything, help One Night in Doom House come out ahead of the first two Mostly Ghostly joints. Once in a while, an endearingly spooky shot will work its way onto the screen (like the so-phony-it’s-awesome haunted house model featured in the opening credits), and in the thankless role of Cammie’s best friend, Vivian Full exhibits a slightly off-kilter personality that you end up wishing had caught on with and roused her fellow castmates to action.
I won’t pretend that “Goosebumps” was some flawless paragon of children’s literature, but there’s still an affection for the property that neither One Night in Doom House or the Mostly Ghostly name in general can ever hope to achieve. While the film stops short of selling its soul and turning into a complete corporate shill, it’s a stinker regardless for a whole other set of reasons, namely a screenplay and an ensemble that share the same allergies to risk-taking and discernable personalities. Failing to both deliver the nostalgic goods for long-time Stine buffs and stand on its own spine-tingling merits, Mostly Ghostly: One Night in Doom House isn’t fit to haunt the collection of any self-respecting horror-holic.