Presenting the fourth, on-going installment of the Niche's R.L. Stine series reviews, here's 'Say Cheese and Die!' (WARNING: spoilers ahead)
Loitering around the gravel driveway of the Banks' homestead in boredom, the story begins with Greg Banks and his three friends, Michael Warner, Doug "Bird" Arthur, and Shari Walker, as they poke fun at their hometown, saying, "Pitts Landing is the pits." To do something else from standing, they take a walk and come by the old Coffman place, an abandoned house with rumors ranging from the ghostly to the murderous sort. As one would expect they decide to go inside and explore, despite Greg's hesitance and the mention of Spidey. An older, and likely homeless, man dressed all in black that walked along on slender legs, Spidey is a nickname that the neighborhood children have given him. Down in the basement, the four find makeshift furniture and discarded food boxes, giving credence to the likelihood that Spidey squats here. Still, they foolishly stay to rummage through some of the articles and try on old clothes.
Greg meanwhile meanders to the other end of the basement and discovers a secret door wherein he finds a strange, automatic camera. Entertaining notions of one day becoming a photographer, Greg decides to take the camera and tests it out on Michael, who poses on the stairway in yellow feather boas and a white Stetson hat. As they wait for the photograph to develop the railing gives way and Michael falls off the stairs, hurting his ankle. Suddenly, they hear noises from upstairs, indicating that someone else has come into the Coffman house. Carrying Michael, the four flee through another doorway as they hear Spidey's voice angrily bellows down into the basement. The children run down the street, but glancing back Greg sees the man staring intently at them from a living room window. After catching their breath and calming their nerves, they look at the developed photo only to find it instead captured Michael in midair as he falls.
Going their separate ways, Greg goes back home and keeps the camera. Parked in the driveway is a brand new, navy blue Taurus station wagon that his father just brought home. Anticipating this for weeks Greg excitedly takes its picture, only to be unnerved by the developed snapshot. Windshield shattered, metal bent and twisted, the station wagon in the photograph is completely totaled with the driver's side caved in. Hiding the camera and picture in his bedroom, Greg comes downstairs for dinner only to be further unnerved when his father announces that they'll take the Taurus for a ride afterward. On the freeway the family has a frightening near-accident with a large truck, but even after avoiding it the snapshot still shows the station wagon wrecked. That same evening, Greg takes a picture of his older brother Terry to test it. Instead of having his eyes crossed and tongue sticking out, Terry's expression is urgent and upset in the snapshot. Additionally, Terry is outside nearby the school playground rather than in his own room.
The next day, Greg meets up with Shari at the playground to watch Bird's afternoon Little League game. Hesitant, but obliging Shari's request, he also brings the camera. Shari takes a snapshot of Bird, which reveals him sprawled unconscious on the ground with his neck bent at a disturbing angle. Taking advantage to pull a fast one on them, Bird lays himself out like in the photograph to frighten Greg and Shari. However the joke is on Bird, who is later on hit hard in the head by a struck baseball and collapses unconscious, his body posed like in the picture. The rest of the photographic predictions suddenly fall into place as Terry races across the playground his brother. Greg and Terry's father has been in a terrible car crash. Pulling urgently on his brother to come with him, Greg happens to spy someone in black watching from the bleachers. Visiting their father in the hospital, Greg ponders two possibilities: does the camera show the future or does it actually cause these events to happen?
After the baseball game you would expect these kids to wise up a little, but no. The following day is Shari's birthday, and guess what she wants Greg to bring to her party? Greg knows better, but he still brings it after getting a guilt trip over the telephone. It's her birthday, after all. At the party, Shari asks to have her picture taken. Greg snaps the shot twice, but it's still the same. The backyard and tree where she poses are visible, but Shari is missing from the picture, entirely. Frustrated and calling the camera dumb, Shari has the party-goers play Truth or Dare in the woods behind her house. After a half-hour, Mrs. Walker calls her daughter and the other children back to cut the birthday cake. Everyone returns, all except for Shari. Even after the police comb through the woods later that evening they find no trace of the missing girl or a struggle. One policeman in particular, Officer Riddick (Relation to Richard B. Riddick from 'Pitch Black', by any chance?), talks to Greg who confesses that it is the camera's fault. Of course the officer doesn't believe him and Greg goes home, only to discover that his room has been ransacked.
Deciding not to worry his family, Greg quickly cleans up the mess before his mother or brother come home. That same evening, Greg calls together an emergency meeting with Michael and Bird. Greg is certain that it was Spidey who was in his house, searching for the camera, so he wants to put it back. The three friends dispute about what to do with the camera when it accidentally goes off, taking Greg's picture. But before he can see what develops on the snapshot, Joey Feris and Mickey Ward, a pair of ninth-grader bullies, give them a hard time before Greg and the other two make a run for it. The bullies don't bother to pursue them and the three part ways. Greg, walking home alone, is left to look at the dreaded photograph. In it, Greg and Shari stand by the playground bleachers and stare in the direction of the camera, horrified, as a shadow covers them.
Two days later, Greg is left alone while his older brother works and his mother has gone to bring their father home from the hospital. Guilt-ridden and frustrated, Greg takes the snapshots and shreds them into pieces. Two hours later, Shari calls him on the phone. She has no recollection of what happened or where she went, the last two days a complete blank. With the commotion of her sudden reappearance, Shari cannot meet Greg to discuss the camera that day, so instead they agree to tomorrow. The next afternoon they meet, surprise surprise, by the playground bleachers to be startled by Spidey, who chases after the children. Fortunately a local, Jerry Norman, happens to come by in his hatchback in time to drive away their pursuer. Jerry asks if they want him to call the police, but, for reasons that elude me, they decline. Their brilliant idea is to sneak back into the old Coffman place tomorrow and put the camera in the hidden panel where Greg found it.
Skip ahead to the next day, Greg and Shari creep inside the abandoned house, down to the basement as a thunderstorm starts brewing outside. Placing the camera back in its panel, the two hasten to the main stairway, only to see Spidey standing above them on the landing. They tell the man in black that the camera is returned, but reveal that they took pictures with it. Dr. Fritz Fredericks, Spidey's real name, relates to the children that he was an inventor who stole the camera from his partner. Intending to make himself rich by accrediting the invention to himself, Fredericks accidentally incurred a curse placed on the camera by his partner, a fail safe. (I won't begin to argue the ludicrous twist thrown in here to mix an evil inventor with the dark arts.) Needless to say, Fredericks lost his job, his family, everything, all to keep the camera a secret. Now that the children know the secret, he must regretfully dispose of them.
Amidst the struggle that ensues, Shari grabs the camera and photographs Dr. Fredericks. Letting out an anguished cry, he crumples to the floor, dead. The snapshot shows Fredericks' pale expression, ghastly and terrified, just as it is now. Greg's best guess seems the most likely answer: the man had died of fright. Breathing a sigh of relief, Shari and Greg hide the camera and leave the basement. A couple of days later, Sheri and Greg relate to Michael and Bird that they called the police, explaining that they had gone into the Coffman house to escape the rain and found the body. Feeling that it was best to leave out the particular detail of the camera in their story to the police, the children decide that it's best if it remained hidden. However, it turns out that Joey and Mickey watched what transpired in the basement that evening through a window. "Say cheese," says Joey as he snaps a shot of Mickey with the cursed camera. The book ends with the boys huddling around the photograph, waiting to see what develops.
Between the annoying, and rather obvious, nicknames and the repeatedly dumb decisions made by the children, 'Say Cheese and Die!' was an irritating read at times. I'm almost surprised that the other children didn't have animal nicknames, half expecting Michael to be called "Piggy". Lucky for us, they didn't. But the ending was the most frustrating portion of the novella. "I stole the plans and camera. I was evil, you see. [...] Unfortunately, from then on, all the surprises were mine. My partner was much more evil than I was. My partner was the true evil one," Dr. Fredericks agonizingly explains. Yes, we get it; you were evil, your partner was evil, the camera is evil. It is just plain monotonous. And what made this camera so valuable to begin with is never explained. Then there's the matter of the partner, who is not only an evil inventor (making Fredericks' own role as a less evil inventor in the story redundant), but also an evil master of the dark arts. It's ridiculous. An old gypsy woman's curse would have worked well enough. I give it two out of five Goosebumps Gs.
- "Man behind the Curtain" Drew
- Well, here's yours truly. The name's Drew, in case you were wondering. The Niche is my personal site, while the comic-in-progress is a partnered effort with Don, a lifelong friend of mine. We collaborate on the stories, but my partner's the writer in the outfit while I am the illustrator. This is currently little more than a side project, but we hope to make something of it.