Monday, October 10, 2016

Review: Goosebumps "Night of the Living Dummy II"

You know, I'm actually somewhat surprised that this episode wasn't made into a 2-part Halloween special. Its sequel was, but not this one.

I mean, yeah, I understand that "The Haunted Mask" was both a classic episode and R.L. Stine's favorite story, but Slappy was Goosebumps's unofficial mascot... sadly for the official mascot.

Scholastic wanted an identifiable character for readers to instantly associate the anthology series with, so they created Curly, a skeleton with a pink mohawk and sunglasses.

Because 90s, that's why.
Curly is mostly-forgotten these days, but there are more than a few people to have a soft spot for the radical guy, and were quite disappointed that he didn't even make a cameo in the 2015 Goosebumps film.

Slappy, on the other hand, did not have that problem. Far from it.

Plot
As I mentioned in the Recap, the first "Night of the Living Dummy" was not adapted. This was probably because the impact of the brilliant twist ending would have been completely lost thanks to Slappy's place in pop culture.

In the first story, a family welcomes in a new ventriloquist's dummy named "Slappy." Magic words are said, bad things happen, the evidence points to Slappy, only for the reader to discover that Mr. Wood was doing the evil things the whole time.

That's a nifty twist.

But in the requisite final-page-twist-ending, it's revealed that Slappy was also alive (which would come to the shock of no one after the second NotLD book). With "Night of the Living Dummy II," the basic formula of the first book is loosely kept, but Slappy is indeed behind everything from the beginning. Heck, the twist ending (that the other dummy is also alive) is even kept. That's some serious plot recycling.

Oh, and here's a Fun Fact. In the first book, the magic words were found in Mr. Wood's pocket, not Slappy's. I don't know if this was explained away in later books, but is it any wonder that R.L. Stine keeps getting accused of using a ghostwriter when he changes details without explaining why?

"Don't tell anybody, but, uh... 'Monster Blood' II, III, and IV. That's all I'm saying."
But it makes sense that the writers would skip over adapting the first story, since it's very similar to the second story. I mean, let's face it. If you can only adapt one of these stories, you're going to adapt the one where Slappy gets to run around and do his thing.

Later "Night of the Living Dummy" sequels kept working within the same formula, which is why the TV adaptation of "Night of the Living Dummy III" changed the plot, and why" Bride of the Living Dummy" did actually end up adapted after all (it put a new spin on the then-traditional Slappy story).

Personally, I think the Mr. Wood twist in the first story makes it the superior one, but like I said, audiences would have felt cheated if Slappy wasn't the villain. And they also would have felt cheated if Goosebumps told the same story twice; once with Slappy as the main villain, and once with Mr. Wood. So, again, picking the second episode to adapt was a no-brainer.

But this story is rife with... well, I hesitate to call them plot holes, but there are quite a few mysteries that go unexplained.

The mysteries of who made Slappy and what the deal with the magic words is are just as vague in the original couple stories, but let's go over a few things that are just kind of glossed over.

Why did Slappy reveal himself when it still would have been in his best interests to keep up the act around Amy's family?

Why the heck is Dennis alive? Was he alive the whole time? Did the words bring him to life? Why didn't Dennis help sooner?

What's that green mist that poured out? Slappy's soul?

A later episode seems to show that he has one....
Interestingly, this is less of a mystery than in the book, where a snake came out instead.

In addition, Slappy's overall goal beyond ownership of Amy and minor vandalism is left vague, but again, that's from the original story.

But Slappy's delight in petty mischief makes his lack of a motivation pretty forgivable. I mean, the guy's basically a little wooden anarchist.

"I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what I would do with one if I caught it. I just... do things."
Themes
Much like "The Haunted Mask," this episode's strongest aspect is found in its exploration of psychological elements.

"What? I thought I was the strongest aspect!"
No, you're the cherry on top.

"Fine. I can live with that."
There are a plethora of Goosebumps episodes where the protagonist tries and fails to convince people that there's some kind of evil on the loose. But this episode, moreso than any other, explores how scary that can actually be. The Twilight Zone memorably explored similar ground when nobody believed Captain Kirk that there was a gremlin on the wing of a plane.

The difference here is that Amy is a child, which arguably makes the psychological terror even stronger. Especially for kids who know all too well what it's like when a parent stops listening to you because they're not taking you seriously.

Amy Kramer is the only person who knows that Slappy is the one behind all this malicious mischief. But nobody will believe her. Not only does she get blamed for everything that happens, but her parents are more than willing to do what it takes to get Amy help for these outbursts she's not actually behind.

It won't stop at a psychiatrist. Why would it? Slappy won't stop doing his thing no matter what treatment Amy gets. No matter what therapy or medication she gets. As long as Slappy's out there, Amy is doomed to be the scapegoat for everything he does. And nobody will ever believe her when she insists that a hunk of wood is responsible for it all.

Her story could easily end in a mental institution, slowly being driven insane as they try to cure a psychosis that she doesn't even have. And this isn't even me taking the subtext too far; the Kramers outright tell Amy that they'd like to take her to a psychiatrist, which cannot end well for Amy and her Cassandra-esque truths.

Characters
Amy Kramer (Maggie Castle)
Amy is a middle child and a younger sister. Through the characters' interactions, it's clear that Amy has the usual issues associated with both of those. The subtext suggests that she apparently has a history of acting out, which could easily be her way of getting attention when overshadowed by both older and younger siblings.

And that means that when she starts blaming her dummy for recent vandalism, her parents are less inclined to believe her than they would otherwise be.

Sara Kramer (Catarina Scorsone)
Your typical older sister archetype. Being the oldest child, she is the measuring stick by which the other children are measured, which causes the aforementioned issues between her and Amy.

I do like that she and Amy work together in the end to defeat Slappy, though. On the other hand...

Jed Kramer (Andrew Sardella)
In the book, Jed also had a part in Slappy's downfall. He would disguise himself as Dennis and then ambush Slappy. But he ended up falling asleep, leading to the discovery that Dennis is alive. Here... he's just kind of there. His "involvement" in the defeat of Slappy in the end is dismissed as soon as it's brought up.

Monster of the Week: Slappy (Ron Stefanuik)
Slappy is probably the greatest individual Goosebumps monster for the same reasons that the Joker is often considered the greatest of Batman's rogues gallery.

First of all, the idea of a living ventriloquist's dummy is inherently creepy, as fellow reviewer Unshaved Mouse can attest. This is largely due to the fact that these dummies often fall into the Uncanny Valley.

The Uncanny Valley, for those of you who might not know, basically states that the more human something is, the more endearing it is to us. Up until a certain point, where its humanness becomes creepy.

For example. C-3PO. Charming and lovable.

Those gynoids from Japan. Terrifying.

Slappy falls into the Uncanny Valley not just because he doesn't look quite human enough, but because he can walk and talk; two decidedly human behaviors. The fact that something inherently creepy-looking is behaving in, quite frankly, the wrong way compounds the creepiness. Bonus points to Ron Stefanuik for designing, voicing, and operating the little guy.

Second of all, also like the Joker, Slappy is something that is meant to bring joy and laughter, but instead gleefully brings misery.

Third of all... Slappy is kind of creepy. Not in an "Ooooooo, spoooooooooky!" way, but more of a "Keep him far away from children" way.

In most of his book appearances, Slappy targets young girls and sticks them into what are, let's face it, abusive relationships. Why do you think he's called "Slappy"? He slaps his young, female "slaves" in attempts to cow them into submission. And he has a habit of referring to them as "love taps."

Much like the subtext between Mr. Mortman and Lucy in "The Girl Who Cried Monster," Slappy's creepiness is something that plays more into parents' fears; that there is something after their child and not only can they not do anything to stop it, but they refuse to believe it's even there.

Which means that this episode can potentially unnerve kids and adults in different ways.

Visuals
I find it odd that Slappy is noticeably larger than a standard ventriloquist's dummy. Because that would seem to indicate that they would use someone child-sized to portray that character in a costume.

Instead, the episode uses clever editing to never show Slappy in any full-body shots where he would have to move around a lot; this way, he can simply be puppeteered from offscreen.

Sure, this limits how the dummy can be shot, but it does have the advantage of avoiding any noticeable cut between a dummy and somebody in a suit. Still, the episode has one blatant mistake with the special effects.

Seriously, just refilm the smoke effect, maybe?
Barking Dogs: 0

Child-Grabbing Count: 1 

Slappy does much worse than just grabbing a kid, but he still indulges by grabbing Margo's sister.
Foliage POV Shots: 0
Although Slappy did get a POV shot as he stalked through the hall.

Red Paint: Yes

X-Files Shout Out: No

Final Thoughts
One of the all-time Goosebumps classics, despite a few hiccups.

Next time, one of the all-time most infamous Goosebumps stories, with a twist ending nobody saw coming... because it's absolutely bonkers. Set up properly and foreshadowed well, but just... nuts.

See you then!

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