Goosebumps #4: Say Cheese and Die
Say Cheese and Die was one of the most iconic covers and titles of the series. It had a fun and original concept as well. I thought Greg and his friends were believably bored kids in the suburbs, and that the plot built up the tension nicely throughout the first two-thirds of the book. It fell apart for me in the final act, though. The big reveals just felt like info dumps, which killed almost all of the built-up tension surrounding the mysterious and unpredictable aspects of the camera. I found myself wishing that the story pulled more from creepy old photography rather than using a polaroid-style camera. I can see where that might have made the plot a lot harder to move, but I think the story would have been better for it.
Ermahgerd #4: Say Cheese and Die!
Observations & Spoilers
Did you know that the TV adaptation of Say Cheese and Die stars a pre-teen Ryan Gosling sporting a bowl cut? Because it does! And the camera they designed looks like a discarded prop from the original Battlestar Galactica! You can watch it yourself if you have Netflix, or you can check out the bullet review I wrote up at the end of this post.
While Say Cheese and Die was easily one of the more memorable titles of the series, the book itself is a mixed bag. While I liked the character dynamics of the main group of friends, I wish that Greg had been a little more distinct as a narrator. This could have been done by simply amplifying his vague interest in photography. Maybe he had an old camera at home that a grandparent gave him, or maybe he had access to a dark room because his mother was a photographer or something to that effect. It would have made his finding the camera more profound. Here it just struck me as a missed opportunity.
The camera itself was essentially a polaroid with an infinite amount of self-loading film. The necessity of it in terms of advancing the plot is obvious, but it would have set a very different tone if the camera had been old. Old photographs have a built-in creepiness to them. It could have been a play on the notion that cameras can steal people’s souls. Maybe Greg could have left the camera out on his dresser that first night, and when he wakes up in the morning he finds that it took pictures of him sleeping. OK, that last one might be a little too dark, but my point is that the camera could have done so much more. Sure it would have complicated the plot to allow time for developing pictures, but I’d have taken a slow and creepy plot over the campy sci-fi explanation we ended up getting.
The scariest moment of the book was by far when Sherri disappeared. I thought it made for a really bold second act (following Stine’s usual three-act structure). When Greg finally destroys the picture he took of Sherri, she reappears with no memory of where she was. The fact that the camera could erase them from existence really shakes them up. That’s when she and Greg decide they need to bring the camera back to the creepy old house where they found it. Unfortunately, this is also when the book takes some unfortunate turns and kills all of its mystery and momentum.
Spidey was an eccentric town vagrant who squatted in the mysterious Coffman House. This is where Greg and his friends found the camera in the first place, and why that had been running from Spidey ever since. I really liked Spidey when he was mysterious, but after he confronts the kids in the third and final act, he felt more like a contrivance. It turns out that Spidey was a scientist, and his lab partner invented the camera. Greed lead Spidey to steal his partner’s invention and claim the credit as his own, but not before his partner placed a curse on it because he was also a lord of the dark arts. Spidey then claimed that the camera killed everyone he ever loved, and as a result, he can never let Greg or Sherri leave his basement because they know too much. Got all that?
I don’t like info dumps, and I especially don’t like them when they kill the mystery that made the story interesting in the first place. I really wanted this to be more of a dark fantasy with some kind of ancient evil rather than a cooky sci-fi plot about corporate greed. It felt very out of step with the rest of the story up until that point. I would have preferred that Spidey didn’t know the camera’s origins and had just been driven mad by it. Like a human Golem, only with a camera instead of a ring. I also think his attempt to keep Greg and Sherri trapped in the basement could have done better than just him blocking their exit. But that’s the climax we got.
In the end, Spidey accidentally gets his own picture taken and immediately dies of fright. The kids run from the house and report finding Spidey’s corpse to the police. It felt anti-climatic. Even Stine’s “is it really over?” moment at the end felt flat. This one was frustrating because it squandered a lot of potential. The right elements are all there, but for me, they just didn’t add up.
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, Say Cheese and Die is ranked 10th of 62, placing it in the top tier of the series.
I really liked the haunted camera concept, but the mechanics of it weren’t as well developed (pun intended) as they could have been.
I wasn’t a fan of Spidy’s info dump at the end, nor was I satisfied with the origin of the camera. Here I think something more mystical and fantasy-based would have been better than the sort-of sci-fi explanation.
This reminded me of the dynamics among my group of childhood friends, and I appreciated that. All that being said, Greg was boring and didn’t have a lot of definable qualities aside from a vague interest in photography that was only expressed after finding the camera. This could have been easily fixed.
Scare Factor: 1/2
Shelly’s disappearance was probably the scariest part of the whole book. If Spidey had upped the stakes a little more than blocking their exit and threatening to keep them in the basement forever, it could have added a lot more tension. I’m picturing a scene where he ties them up and surrounds them with mirrors before taking their picture and bringing on the ultimate curse. Unfortunately, nothing like that happened.
A haunted camera that makes bad things happen is a fairly original concept, even if I didn’t ultimately like the way it panned out.
TV Adaptation – Bullet Review
• This is a half-hour one part adaptation. Like all of the others to get a similar treatment, it just feels rushed.
• Ryan Gosling’s bowl cut FTW. Here to remind you that this show is 90s AF.
• The warehouse setting implies they were running low on-site location options. Not enough creepy old house exteriors in Vancouver, I suppose.
• The camera looks like a toaster from a spaceship in a 1960s B Sci-Fi movie.
• Ryan Gosling did not return for the sequel episode “Say Cheese and Die Again,” so we, unfortunately, don’t have that to look forward to.
• Spidey looks suspiciously like the guitarist for System of a Down. Maybe that means Spidey also sympathizes with Charles Manson? We may never know.
Don’t miss the next blog in this series:
Goosebumps #5: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb