Perhaps the most frightening thing about playing Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland in 2019—a game crammed with monsters, kidnappings, and the constant, jaunty threat of murder—is making it work on a modern PC. There comes a point in a person’s life, usually around 1 am when a PC without a DVD burner refuses to mount a phantom drive to run a pretend disc, when they ask: "Is this actually worth it?"
And in this case the answer is yes, because vampire Jeff Goldblum.
I adopt the standard method of problem resolution when dealing with Windows Compatibility Mode: Give up and try something else. I find an executable version of the game that comes with an idiot-proof installer, and before long I’m jort-deep in mid-'90s nostalgia. This Goosebumps game has a classic R. L. Stine setup, beginning with white picket fences before spiraling into a world of bugs, zombie tennis players, and mummified teenagers. Horrorland itself is a ghoulish theme park run by the maniacal Madison Storm, a man who sounds like a professional wrestler but is actually a deeply disturbed prospective child murderer. But, you know, in a fun way.
Our heroes are Lizzie, Luke, and Clay, the same meddling kids who escaped Horrorland in the book the game is based on (I take Goosebumps lore very seriously). They're being dragged back as punishment for getting away last time.
It looks absurdly dated, with jittering FMV moments, blurry backgrounds, and sluggish mouse movement, but it’s endearingly creepy. The set dressing in particular is gleefully sinister. I find a café that serves freshly cut finger sandwiches and blood pudding (a joke in a Goosebumps game, but a delicacy in Northern England) and an old fridge that contains werewolf milk, the delicious middle point between human milk and dog milk. There’s even a movie theatre playing the actual trailer for Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, which is a fabulously schlocky touch.
Structurally, Horrorland holds up as a moderately challenging point-and-click puzzler. I have to poke pumpkins in the correct order to spell out sentences and steal chops from insects to feed carnivorous plants. There are some cheery details that must have made it seem legit for the time.
Once I solve the pumpkin mystery, for instance, they all start doing impressions when I click on them. I recognise Peter Lorre and three different versions of Christopher Walken. Overall, it feels surprisingly playable but predictably obtuse in the way far too many adventure games are. I solve a laser beam puzzle by using sunglasses from a ‘vampire eyewear through the ages’ exhibit, which I can only reach after I’ve propped open the display cabinet by beheaded a mop with a guillotine.
That would be fine, except that my character is carrying an apparently-useless hammer that would be ideal for smashing glass cabinets.
The actors behind the lead performances are full of gusto. There’s the odd fluffed line that makes it into the final release, but I’m largely convinced these kids think they’re trapped in a real monstrous theme park. Luke, played by Adam Augustus Wylie, also provides my favourite Wikipedia bio of all time: ‘actor, musical performer, magician, singer and a former Crayola spokesman.’
Lead performances aside, it feels like Escape from Horrorland has saved all its star power for the finale in Dracula’s castle. It’s there I bump into Isabella Rosellini, who plays Lady Cadaver. She’s either Dracula’s girlfriend or his dinner—I’m not entirely sure which. Roselleini provides what might be the standout performance in the game. Lizzie steals one of her robes as a means of impersonating her, which leads to an explosive argument and a full-on Scooby Doo chase that ends with me crushing Lady Cadaver with a collapsible bed. If she’s not dead, she’s at least maimed.
And then, finally, we come to it: The smouldering cherry atop Horrorland’s kitschy cake. Goldblum swoops in as Dracula, and I’m expecting a feast of flamboyant hand acting and enough ham for werewolf village breakfast. But I’m disappointed to report that Jeff’s portrayal as the Prince of Darkness is understated to the point of being inaudible. Maybe it’s the fake teeth he has to wear, which make him talk like he has a mouthful of biscuits. Or maybe it’s the ignominy of playing a cartoon vampire in a forgotten CD-ROM game. Either way, it’s like you can feel him firing his agent as he urges out every reluctant line.
Thankfully, the nauseating weirdness of it all makes it entertaining. Count Jeffula appears utterly unphased at the probable crushing of his undead paramour, and is quite happy to dance with the child impersonating her. This leads to my favourite moment in the game: All six-foot-and-four-inches of Jeff Goldblum, dressed like a thrift store Bela Legosi, performing a clodhopping FMV waltz with a gangly teenage girl. It’s truly majestic.
Best of all, the dance is merely a ruse so I can steal a crank from Dracula when he lurches near, which is the sort of justification of my actions that could get me committed.
Crank grabbed, we stun Dracula with a magic ring—no time to get into all that—rescue Clay, and make our escape in a coffin full of spiders, which is every conceivable nightmare rolled into one. And it’s around now that we get another big reveal: Our parents are trapped in Horrorland, too! The villainous Madison Storm plans to exact his revenge by sacrificing them in an arena full of monsters. I’m able to liberate them by playing ancient 1980s memory game Simon, and the only interesting bit of this section is that the Goosebumps mum is played by older-than-she-sounds British actor Glynis Barber, who apparently shot to semi-fame in a British police show called Demsey and Makepiece. No, I don’t remember it either. Ask your dad.
The parents are rescued, Horrorland is destroyed, and there’s time for one final twist: Madison Storm is our new neighbour! Yes, the same Madison Storm who kidnapped and attempted to murder mum and dad. They forgot, apparently. Afterwards I learn there’s an even worse ending for players who let the parents tumble in the vat of bubbling ooze, which seems impressively open-ended for a game of the time.
But before I get excited about achieving the ‘best’ ending, Escape from Horrorland’s final act is to give me a score: I’ve collected 27 tokens out of a possible 777. A performance even vampire Jeff would be ashamed of.