Goosebumps #31: Night of the Living Dummy
Night of the Living Dummy II is a huge improvement on the original book, which is fondly remembered by many as being better than it actually is. This isn’t quite the Terminator 2 or Empire Strikes Back level of the sequel being better than the original, but kudos to Stine for pulling off the rare fete. Unlike its predecessor, Night of the Living Dummy II does not waste a full two-thirds of the book on exhausting fake scares, and it doesn’t star the same insufferable and bratty twin protagonists. In fact, the only returning character from the first book is Slappy. I liked Amy as the middle child protagonist; I don’t think I’ve seen that before in a Goosebumps book. I also thought the book did a really good job building tension and escalating the stakes up until the third act. Unfortunately, like the first book, there isn’t a lot of logic behind the living dummy or his motives. He exists to play mean pranks and has a weird obsession with making children his slaves with no obvious means of enforcing said enslavement. It was another missed opportunity to do something way scarier. I wasn’t sold on the twist in the third act, it felt too contrived for the sake of creating a twist. Overall, Night of the Living Dummy II was a mostly fun read and a vast improvement over the first book, even as it shared some of the same flaws.
ERMAHGERD #31:Night of the Living Dummy. Photo assistance by Lindsay Pacelli
Observations & Spoilers
Thursday night is “Family Sharing Night” in the Kramer household. All of the kids claim to hate it but you can tell they secretly like it. I love the whole concept; it’s delightfully cheesy in a way that encourages creativity. Amy’s older sister Sara is a perfectionist and an artist, and Amy’s younger brother Jed likes gross boy things like farting. Amy’s the funny one, and she has a ventriloquist act that she does with her dummy Dennis. The only problem is that Dennis’ head keeps falling off. That’s why Amy’s dad buys her a new dummy when he finds it in an antique shop for a bargain price. This is how Amy ends up with Slappy, who has a moldy sandwich in his brain? No joke, that actually happened. And of course, Amy finds and reads those magical evil words…
If you remember from the first book, Mr. Wood is actually the dummy that walks and causes all the ruckus. He gets crushed by a steam roller in a construction site. Slappy only comes to life at the very end of the book. Somehow the twins were able to get rid of Slappy and he found his way to an antique shop. He was presumably on sale because of his being evil and all. But Amy and her father still had to read the cursed words neatly tucked in Slappy’s pocket in order to bring him to life. It makes me wonder how the twins, and potentially several other unfortunate would-be ventriloquists, restored him back to his death state? Was it something like the Ring where the only way to escape the curse was to pass it on? We may never know because this point is never explored further.
Strange antics start up right away. Someone spills all of Sara’s paint in her room. Jed is the first suspect since he painted a sun onto one of Sara’s paintings earlier. But Amy was seen going into Sara’s room (to get markers) and is believed to be the real culprit. Then Slappy insults the whole family when Amy tries to bring home out at family sharing night. He makes fun of mom for being overweight, and Dad for being bald. Amy tries to explain that it’s the dummy saying these things, and not her. Of course, her parents don’t believe her. Then someone paints Amy’s name all over Sara’s room in red paint. Amy is grounded and her parents think she needs to talk to a psychiatrist. You see, Amy’s parents were Baby Boomers. This was the nineties. Seeking help for one’s mental health was akin to failure. The possibility of Amy being sent to a psychiatrist was a THREAT.
In spite of all of this, Amy’s friend Margo hooks her up with a party gig for her ventriloquist act. In spite of being grounded, Amy’s parents let her go to this. I was expecting a rehash of the first book, and honestly looking forward to how Slappy might traumatize a party full of three-year-olds. The show never happens, though. Amy introduces the birthday girl to Slappy, who shakes his hand. Then Slappy won’t let go. He squeezes it so hard the little girl cries and a whole scene is caused. Amy is devastated and swears to never touch Slappy again And that’s when Slappy emerges from Amy’s closet to finally let her in on his master plan: slavery. Seriously, Slappy wants to make Amy his slave, and he will do so by framing her for pranks and squeezing the hands of small children until they cry!
So, Slappy basically wants the same thing that Mr. Wood did in the first book. This is where the book really hit a wall. Amy’s sister Sara finally confesses to believing Amy after having seen Slappy move. It’s actually a pretty touching sister moment, where they realized they both envied the other. They team up to tie slappy down and dump him in the sewer. They’re feeling pretty good about it until Slappy shows up the next morning in the living room. So they make a new plan that I the reader was not privy to. Because that would spoil the twist. Amy waits until she hears Slappy get up in the middle of the night and follows him to Sara’s room. When Amy tries to stop him, they are both surprised when Amy’s other dummy Dennis runs in and tackles Slappy to the ground!
Slappy’s head cracks open on Sara’s bed frame. A gross green gas escapes. Dennis flees the room before they can turn the lights on. Amy’s parents emerge from Sara’s closet where they were hiding; they saw the whole thing. Sara had talked them into it earlier and finally believe Amy. Jed was supposed to come in dressed as Dennis to throw Slappy off. They hadn’t expected Slappy to get his head cracked open, so that was an added bonus. They apologize to Amy for not believing her and then go to find Jed so they can congratulate him. Only Jed is still asleep. He forgot to wake up and play his part! That means… that means… Dennis was really alive!
This was not one of Stine’s better twist endings. The third act hit a wall on what was a pretty fun read up until that point. The whole closing scene was contrived to an eye-rolling degree. Amy couldn’t have signaled Jed to make sure he was up? Was Jed really as small as Dennis? Unless Dennis was a toddler or exceptionally tiny, it’s hard to believe they could be mistaken for one another. Also, why did Dennis wait this long to awaken to save the family? So many questions! And it all could have worked for me if Stine had just gone the extra mile on giving Slappy some much-needed depth. Our creepy boy needed a better motive and a means of executing more than pranks.
Here’s my pitch: Slappy has spent his life being manipulated to say things by others. He resents humans for this deeply. Amy and her whole act are a mockery of his entire existence. So instead of simply coming to life and playing pranks that somehow lead to slavery… maybe that living dummy magic gives him the means to control the puppeteer. It takes time for him to flex these muscles and exert his control for longer periods. Amy starts losing time, waking up in places she didn’t intend to go. She says horrible things she didn’t want to say. She thinks she catches glimpses of Slappy moving, smiling, not being where she had left him. Then he starts bringing Sara and Jed under his spell, forcing the siblings to work together to get out of it. There. That’s my synopsis for how I wish this book had gone. I have many other pitches ready, for all of you publishers who frequent my blog. They’re all gems just like this one. Let me write you some spooky shit.
Credit where credit is due: Stine pulled off the rare fete where the sequel was better than the original. And yes, that may be because the original was terrible (in my humble opinion). But a win is a win. I’ll take this trilogy over the Monster Blood books any day of the week, and I haven’t even read the third one yet. I’m not hopeful about Night of the Living Dummy III adding more depth to Slappy, but I firmly believe that it can’t possibly be worse than either of the Monster Blood sequels. And that’s all I’ve got. This is the end of my review. Until next time, nerds.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each. I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are Concept (the overall idea), Execution (the mechanics of storytelling), Character (the protagonists, antagonists, and villains), Scare Factor (from a childhood standpoint), and Originality (subversion and reliance on genre tropes). Based on GoodReads aggregate ratings, Night of the Living Dummy II is ranked 15th of 62, placing it in the middle-high tier of the series.
On one hand, the concept is fun because dummies are naturally creepy. But the logic of what a living dummy would want and do just isn’t thought out beyond pranks and a strange obsession with turning children into slaves. A little bit of depth in that direction would have gone a long way.
I wanted to give it 2 points here because it built the tension nicely. Only it stalled in the third act when Slappy finally reveals himself. That and the twist ending makes no sense.
The characters are what made this book an enjoyable read in spite of some glaring flaws. The parents were believably corny. The sibling rivalry felt normal and not psychopathic (as was the case in the first book). Amy was a strong middle-child protagonist.
Scare Factor: 1/2
It never really moves beyond pranks that get Amy grounded. The idea of being framed the way Amy was is about as scary as it got. But not enough was done to make Slappy as creepy as he could have been.
Stine does a good job at taking familiar tropes and making kid-friendly horror out of them. As iconic as the Living Dummy books are, they’re not the most original. I’m giving this one point here because it wasn’t a total rehash of the first book, and actually improved upon it. That’s a rare fete.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• They made Amy more of a brat. Not a fan of that change. Her being funny and relatable was one of the better parts of the book.
• I did like Jed’s family movie at Family Sharing Night. Classic little brother shenanigans. I could see myself at that age doing the same thing.
• They made Slappy a redhead. Nowhere near as menacing as the Slappy from the book covers. Still a menacing look, though. I’m just partial to the Tim Jacobus visuals.
• They also made Slappy gigantic compared to Dennis. I’m guessing this was due to the challenges of using an actual ventriloquist dummy for the stunts the story required. I wonder if it was animatronics or if they had someone actually inside there? I’m too lazy to look it up.
• Dad’s music was worse than described in the book. I’m guessing “You Are My Sunshine” is public domain and that’s why it was used.
• I know these are truncated for time, but I wish that the Amy and Sara bonding moment was kept in. I thought that was a uniquely strong message for the Goosebumps series and good for its target audience. Stine himself has said that the only lessons his characters ever learn is to run.
• Slappy the rockstar, here to smash your guitar.
• Jed as Dennis was even less believable than in the book, the actor was easily four the size of the dummy.
• I wonder if there is a specific reason they chose not to do the first book as an adaptation. I’m sure there is since it is one of the most popular books in the series. I think that has more to do with cover art than content, but I digress. Either way, I think this was the better story to adapt.
• A+ on the choice of voice for Dennis.
Don’t miss the next post in my Goosebumps blog series:
Goosebumps #32: The Barking Ghost
Also, be sure to check out the latest from the Pulp Horror blog series:
Richie Tankersley Cusick’s Trick or Treat