At a small town Halloween festival teenage Beth (Disney teen idol Dove Cameron) is in the middle of a dance contest with would-be boyfriend Kellan (Braeden Lemasters) when the crowd are startled by creepy carnival owner, Dr. Hysteria (Andrew Kavadas). He announces his new attraction as the must-see spook-tacular event this Halloween. However, Beth is more interested in Hunter (Ryan McCarten), the handsome new boy in town. Which leaves Kellan hopelessly jealous although he finds himself drawn to foxy carnival star Lilith (Katherine McNamara) who invites him along to the show. That night Beth, Hunter and Kellan along with their prankster friend Luke (Casey Dubois) and lovelorn Nicole (Tiffany Espensen) join the hundreds of townspeople wowed by Dr. Hysteria's spook-shows and frighteningly lifelike monsters. While exploring a haunted house Beth stumbles alone into a secret room where she discovers Hysteria's monsters are very real.
This direct-to-VOD/DVD tween fright-fest was the other R.L. Stine adaptation released in 2015 along with the higher-profile theatrical release: Goosebumps. Often mistakenly identified as a nom de plume adopted by a collective of authors on account of his staggeringly prolific output, Stine is the Stephen King of children's literature. His vast back catalog sired several television series including the iconic Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? back in the Nineties and more recently a spin-off from another direct-to-DVD feature: R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour (2007), a vehicle for an earlier Disney teen star Emily Osment. Helmed by onetime 21 Jump Street star turned prolific television director Peter DeLuise, son of comedian and actor Dom DeLuise, R.L. Stine's Monsterville: The Cabinet of Souls has much the same bubblegum tone of a Disney Channel movie with its tween idol cast, sugary pop soundtrack and sitcom humour. However the plot's darker undertones counterbalance the treacle with interestingly flawed characters and solid creepy ideas.
Instead of trite stalk and scare antics the story revolves around the relationships and resentments among the young characters. Turn-of-the-century styled villain Dr. Hysteria and his minions slowly tease out the neuroses, anxieties and vanities in each character, gradually exposing their ugly side. A quick glance at the titular Cabinet of Souls gives them a glimpse of their innermost fantasies that turns them into literal monsters. Only Beth exhibits the strength of character to resist although screenwriters Billy Brown and Dan Angel wisely paint her as a fallible and therefore sympathetic heroine instead of a saintly good girl. Admittedly the plot steals shamelessly from Ray Bradbury's classic novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) which Disney adapted for the screen as a far stronger, much underrated movie. Nonetheless while derivative the film functions as a spooky, compelling little morality tale with a fun, candy-coloured EC comics inspired look, idiosyncrasies in plot an characterization (for once a tween movie acknowledges the comedy relief character is annoyingly unfunny and makes that a plot point!) as well as monster makeup that is fairly creepy for a kid's film (Dr. Hysteria's haunted house features hideous zombies and Leatherface-style chainsaw wielding maniacs).
Dove Cameron, arguably the most talented among Disney's current crop of stars, proves once again she can handle almost any role (comedy, drama, musical) with aplomb. She gives a winningly grounded, compelling and earnest turn. Co-star Katherine McNamara is also worth singling out, building on the strength of her role as a spooky witch in Girl vs. Monster (2012), she makes a charismatic vixen and also performs the closing song. It makes sense she was chosen to replace Lily Collins in the role of Clary Fray in the TV spin-off Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments. While the scares in R.L. Stine's Monsterville: The Cabinet of Souls are unlikely to work for an adult audience, Peter DeLuise does a decent job wringing suspense and staging jump scares. He even throws in a surprise nod to The Beyond (1981) when Beth unearths a Lucio Fulci-style gateway to the netherworld complete with blank-eyed zombies. Lest younger viewers find this too scary, the convoluted denouement involves Google as handy deus ex machina (?!) and throws in a big goofy dance off with heroes and monsters alike, just to end things on a happy note.