Slappy is a walking, talking, evil ventriloquist’s dummy that looks like Charlie McCarthy after a too-close flirtation with a wood-chipper and cackles like Nick Offerman on poppers. But he’s really just a lonely boy who wants a family.
The teenagers who inadvertently unearth Slappy shun his search for surrogacy, rightly so after his evil deeds nearly destroy their school and kill a classmate. So Slappy turns to the Halloween aisle at the town pharmacy, using his ability to give life to inanimate objects that he can see — chiefly Goosebumps-branded masks and props clearly marked as clearance items.
This bit in Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween weakly mimics the mildly amusing meta momentum of 2015’s Goosebumps. That first adaptation of R.L. Stine’s spooky-story series scaled for smaller kids featured Stine as a character (played by Jack Black) trying to corral his creations, like Slappy, before their calamities consumed a town. It also illustrates the overconfidence with which vendors can sometimes flood a market with product that is glanced at, left behind on the shelf and, eventually, priced to move — true in costume aisles on Halloween night and your multiplex.
Flatly conceived with spots for its inevitable Freeform commercial breaks baked in, Haunted Halloween offers no reason to exist beyond an open calendar spot, an unexpectedly successful predecessor … and maybe a friendly wager on the degree to which Black will return. That’s no longer him doubling as the voice of Slappy, although longtime voice artist Mick Wingert sure effectively tricks you. Black does eventually show, far enough away from most visual effects (and oftentimes other actors) to make you guess he had a spare week during The House with a Clock in Its Walls and an eye on an additional luxury purchase this payday could afford.
Payday. Now there’s a perfectly milquetoast candy. Haunted Halloween is like digging into the deepest cranny of the candy bowl and only ever coming back with Payday. As before, Haunted Halloween features Stine’s fictional horrors rendered into reality merely by opening one of his books. They can be sucked back in by a computer-generated vortex effect, but this film’s characters take a while to learn that because … well, clearly they haven’t seen the first movie. Aside from a scene with angry gummy bears that plays like a squishier, more colorful version of a Gremlins attack, every single approach here is more worn than the wood on Slappy’s nose.
There are jokes about bitcoin, Stephen King bits Stine claims he did first, a professorial alias of Richard Shivers (get it?) and a waste-hauling business touting its supremacy at grabbing junk. It’s also been a long time since one film featured such a slew of sibilant names; in addition to Slappy and Stine, there’s Sonny, Sam and Sarah. Speaking of Slappy, you have to admire the evil cojones on a doll who would twist the knife on Sarah’s writer’s block for a college-entry essay about overcoming fear. Gee, do you think she’ll write about the giant balloon spider?
Perhaps she’ll become a doctor one day like Ken Jeong, who gave all of that up to pursue a career in comedy. Once the bright, weird light of the Hangover franchise, Jeong is content here to show you just how little he’ll do for a dollar — particularly rattling off some Goosebumps book titles the publisher would love for you to buy and proclaiming Haunted Halloween’s rare flicker of familial humanity to be “a classic Goosebumps moment.” Now that is terrifying.