Saturday, October 1, 2016

Review: Goosebumps "The Haunted Mask"

The problem with telling a story about a supposedly terrifying mask is that if you have to actually show it, it will never be as scary as what the audience can imagine.

Although there is one possible exception.

Now that's a haunted mask.
Plot/Themes
This is R.L. Stine's favorite story, and I can't really blame him. For a guy who churns out easily consumable children's literature like a machine, this is probably one of his best works. This is definitely one of the simpler Goosebumps stories, but the simpler stories are usually the better ones. R.L. Stine is a really creative guy, but some of his stories tend to get bogged down in just how weird they are, or have too much to explain to properly bring the scares. Looking at you, "Ghost Beach."

I mentioned that Stine was inspired by EC Comics for the Goosebumps books. Well, "The Haunted Mask" wouldn't look out of place in the pages of "Tales From the Crypt," would it?

Yeah, that looks about right.
And really, the classic EC formula is why both this book and episode work so well.

- Main character has a problem with other people.
- Main character vows revenge.
- Main character uses dark forces to achieve vengeance.
- Dark forces give main character a sticky end/karmic punishment.

Although that last part is ultimately defied, because this is meant for children. Unless you count the obligatory twist ending.

I'd say that the biggest problem with this episode's plot is how it separates into two parts. Most of the good stuff is in the second episode, although the first part does properly take the time to establish Carly Beth's increasingly-fragile mental state and the lengths to which Chuck and Steve are pushing her. If the original story weren't as good as it is, splitting it into two parts might have ruined it by killing the pacing.

I can't help but wish that the more supernatural things in the first part (the plaster head's smile, the moving masks in the shop) were toned down just a tad. Because of the strong characterization, it would be easy to make the audience wonder whether Carly Beth is being controlled somehow or if she's simply snapped. And after all the abuse she's had heaped on her, it's a definite possibility.

Of course, it's pretty obvious that the mask is, in fact, haunted, even without the title spoiling that little fact. I mean, it's a Goosebumps story.

Characters
Before we begin, allow me to show you all one of the greatest bits of synchronicity in Canadian television history.

And that's about the Long and Short of it.
Carly Beth Caldwell (Kathryn Long)
Making fun of child actors... well, to put it simply, it's a pretty jerky thing to do.

Luckily, the first protagonist in this show gives a solid performance that runs more of a gamut than most characters in this series. She portrays Carly Beth as a timid girl, a girl on the edge of breaking, a girl who has finally discovered an outlet for her pent-up emotion, a possessed girl, and more.

As I mentioned before, I find it interesting that you could remove all the supernatural element and still have a solid story regarding a girl driven to the breaking point by bullying. I mean, look how much Carly Beth enjoys running around in the mask even when it's not controlling her actions.

Sure, it'd be a bit more Stephen King than R.L. Stine, but it goes to show what strong characterization Carly Beth has. Most Goosebumps protagonists are kind of bland and interchangeable, but Carly Beth stands out as a dynamic individual who grows and changes multiple times throughout the story as she first seeks revenge before having it backfire on her.

Also, Michael J. Brown is credited for "The Haunted Mask" on IMDb. I don't know if that refers to the flying Unloved Ones, the voice, or if Kathryn Long never wore that mask because my research keeps coming up dry. Dang it, Google! I'm searching for information on the show, not the movie!

Sabrina (Kathryn Short)
Sabrina never really grows beyond the role of "best friend," but that's really all she needs to be; she's the metric by which Carly Beth's growing nuttiness is measured.

Chuck and Steve (Amos Crawley and George Kinamis)
The first of many groups of bullies for this series. These two have the distinction of being pranksters that are simply taking it too far.

I do like that there's no malice in what they're doing; too many bullies are portrayed as big meanies that want to do others harm. While that is something that happens, I do like the idea of bullies who aren't trying to torment someone else, they just don't know when to stop. It just goes to show what kind of damage one can do to another, even unintentionally.

As for the performances, I do like how goofy, fun-loving, and sometimes homoerotic these two are. I think we all know a couple Fred-and-George-type goofs like this.

Not-So-Happy Mask Salesman (Colin Fox)
The first of many creepy adults in the series, and one of the more mysterious.

I like the mystery of what exactly is under his "face," and the actor gives a good performance. Still, apart from some vague mysteries, he's still just another in a long line of creepy adults this show will feature.

Still, Colin Fox gives a strong performance that takes the creepiness and mystery of the character and elevates it.

I also find it funny that the first character to creepily watch some kids went on to play Uatu the Watcher in the 90s Silver Surfer cartoon.

R.L. Stine (R.L. Stine)
Unfortunately, R.L. Stine doing the hosting duties (as he did for every Goosebumps Halloween special) is the weak link.

It's not necessary, it's filled with spoilers, it's not scary, it's not funny, it's just... there. And Stine doesn't exactly have enough on-screen personality to cary the segments.

Don't quit your dayjob, Stine. I do mean that in a good way, since you're very good at it. But geez, man, if you were any more wooden, you'd be a ventriloquist's dummy.

"You rang?"
Uh... no, but I can see how you would assume I was referring to you.

"Oh."
Yeah, sorry.

"...So what now? Is this the part where I become your recurring nemesis?"
Nah, that doesn't really happen on this blog. Ultron tried that a couple years back, it didn't stick. I would try Unshaved Mouse or Linkara if you wanted something like that.

"Nah, that sounds like work.
I'll just stick around here and pop up as a sounding board when you need somebody to talk to."
Yeah, that seems to be what most characters do.

Visuals
There are actually some good subtle effects, actually. The mask's eyeholes show her own eyelids at first, but as time goes on, her eyelids become the same color as the mask, illustrating that the mask has bonded to her face.

Nice touch.
And yes, the attack of the Unloved Ones is poorly lit, poorly composited, and has cheap after-image effects... but that actually makes it even creepier than if the effect had been done well, in my opinion.

This is 100% opinion, but I find their movements and not-quite-realistic presence unnerving in the same way that I find the THX logo unsettling, or in the same way that Myst is creepy.

It's hard to explain, really. Maybe it was just the proliferation of badly-composited special effects while I was growing up in the 90s that led to me finding them spooky... and yet, there are plenty of modern video games that manage to wring every drop of terror out of pixels big enough to choke a camel.

So in the end, like most everything, whether or not the non-practical effects succeed is up to the individual, but there's no denying that the mask looks consistently good, even phenomenal in some shots.

Especially when smeared with the friend of all monster makers, KY Jelly.
That stuff helped with everything from the Alien to the Predator and far more.
Barking Dogs
Part 1: 1
Part 2: 0
Total: 1

Child-Grabbing Counter
Part 1: 2
Part 2: 2
Total: 4

Foliage POV Counter: 0
They're stayin' out of the bushes this time.

Red Paint: No

X-Files Shout Outs: No
 
Final Thoughts
Definitely a solid start to the series, illustrating exactly what you're in for with this show. It can be creepy, funny, unintentionally funny, and unintentionally creepy.

It's possible to enjoy this episode legitimately, as well as in a So-Bad-It's-Good way. For me, it's a mixture of both.

Next time... well, that's just it. Time. See you then!

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