Friday, January 13, 2017

Review: Goosebumps "Piano Lessons Can Be Murder"

Aw, crap, I just realized that I didn't work in any Billy Joel references in the Recap.

Dang it, how did I miss the obvious one?

This is a weird one.

When it comes down to it, this picture pretty much sums it up.
This episode is loosely adapted from the original, with nearly every aspect changed in some minor way. For example, the original book had the piano ghost as one of Shreek's student's, not Mr. Toggle's teacher, the timeframe is stretched out, and there were scenes that took place at the local school. And Kim is Asian in the book. At least, I assume so, judging by her full name of Kim Li Chin.

But this book has a complete history of having its plot changed. The very first drafts were apparently titled "Guitar Lessons Can be Murder," since his son was taking lessons at the time. But from what I understand, every single person he talked to told him that guitar lessons simply weren't scary.

I would actually go so far as to say that the streamlining of the book compared to the episode improves it by cutting out unnecessary repetition of Jerry's encounter with the piano ghost. And removing the school scenes was a good idea, too, since it's just an extraneous setting.

But as ever, the TV adaptation cut out R.L. Stine's attempts at being hip with the young people.

"I decided to suggest that one of them be made into a Nintendo room. We could put a wide-screen TV in there to play the games on. It would be really neat."

Yeah, with each pixel as big as your head.

But both the original book and the TV adaptation are just... weird. One of the more nonsensical books, and its sheer weirdness becomes more apparent on the screen. It's not exactly bad, but... well, it doesn't quite come together. But in a way, I sort of find its all-out weirdness pretty charming, even if the ghost story and the evil roboticist seem to come from different stories.

Jerry Hawkins (Ben Cook)
In the original book, Jerry is a lame-o prankster, convinced that his dumb jokes and tricks are funny. It actually kind of got annoying for me to read, since he's pretty self-congratulatory about his dumb jokes.

The complete rewrite into being a weird kid with an active imagination was much-appreciated, since it makes him more interesting and less annoying. Cook's performance is pretty good, too. He acts like a real kid getting bored in his piano lessons.

Dr. Shreek (Aaron Tager)
I'll be the first person to admit that these Goosebumps episodes are a treasure trove of low-hanging fruit. Creepy adults and unsupervised children. Obvious joke is obvious, right? But Dr. Shreek, I think, is supposed to have a bit of that to him. I mean, it's canon that he has an obsession with his students' bodies.

Aaron Tager, an Are You Afraid of the Dark? veteran, goes between creepy and charming... really without changing much in regards to his performance. And the scene where he freaks out and chases after Jerry while screaming about hands is as hilarious and surreal as it is creepy. On the other hand...

Mr. Toggle (Géza Kovács)
He's just kind of... there. The actor mugs and pantomimes his way through, but still can't quite muster anything to put him on the same threat level as Dr. Shreek, even though he's supposed to be the big bad of the episode.

Piano Ghost (Brenda Devine)
...Eh. She's creepy and ghostly. She serves her purpose in the story, showing that the true evil isn't the supernatural being, but the janitor.

Still, there's something about the performance that doesn't seem... genuine. Something about it that convinces me that they hired a 30-something-year-old lady to play an elderly woman. Which is weird, because the actress was about 50.

Kim (Brenda Divine)
She’s just there to give Jerry a reason to be interested in learning piano. If you want her to have more than ten or so lines, then you can wait until the actress returns in “Attack of the Jack O’Lanterns.”

Some atmospheric shots, competent effects work....

Apart from this glaringly pointless bit of green screen.
...and some fine prosthetics. Not much to make fun of in the same vein as some other episodes.

Barking Dogs: No dogs in this one, although I'd like to point out something from the original book.

As I've said before, Stine loves dogs, and loves to use them as evil detectors, barking at the supernatural. He also seems to hate cats, judging by a rather lengthy passage at the beginning of this book where Jerry does nothing but complain about how his parents' cat Bonkers ambushes and scratches him. And check this bit of prose out.

"When we moved to this new house, I was hoping maybe Bonkers would get left behind. But, no way. Mom made sure that Bonkers was in the car first, right next to me. And of course the stupid cat threw up in the back seat. Whoever heard of a cat who gets carsick? She did it deliberately because she's horrible and vicious."

We get it, Stine. You're a dog person.

...Well, not literally a dog person. This isn't "My Hairiest Adventure."

Child Grabbing
Dr. Shreek: 2
I'm discounting all those times he was just touching Jerry's hands.
Mr. Toggle: 2
Total: 4

Foliage POV Cam: No

Antagonists' Murder Count: At least 1, none onscreen.
Protagonist's Murder Count: 0
Total Murder: At least 1, none onscreen.

Red Paint: No

X-Files Shout-Out: No

Final Thoughts
Ghosts, robots, and madmen obsessed with hands threaten to make this episode too weird for its own good, but Dr. Shreek manages to be more interesting than Mr. Toggle in a good way. Maybe not the best book, or the best episode, but certainly one of the more unique ideas, with a nutty charm.

Next time, the mummy returns! Which comes as a bit of a surprise, since he never even came around in the first place. See you then!

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