Now here’s an episode I was curious to watch again. Piano Lessons Can Be Murder was one of my favourite titles in the Goosebumps book series back in the day, and I remember how excited I was when the TV adaptation first aired. I also remember taping it and watching the VHS more times than what would probably be considered normal. So it’s time to find out whether or not childhood me was out of his god damn mind, or whether this actually is a solid episode.
We meet our hero, Jerry, and I immediately remembered that girls in my class thought he was cute. I find it a wee bit strange to think that at some point we were having classroom discussions about the cast of the Piano Lessons Can Be Murder TV episode, but we were like 11-years-old so it was probably either talk about that or fucking Full House or whatever. Should I go back and review Full House episodes? Are they are still just the worst? Maybe that can be next.
Anyway, when we first meet Jerry, he is running around the basement of his new home, playing pretend games with himself where he imagines he is a scientist or an alien and such. We immediately feel bad for him because clearly the dude has no friends and also maybe seems just a wee bit too old to be running around pretending to be a space alien. Space scientist is fine; you’re never too old to pretend to be a space scientist. The alien is where I draw the line though; this kid needs to grow up.
Shit gets real pretty fast as during his alien scenario; he starts to hear the sound of Moonlight Sonata being played on a piano in the next room. Now of course you and I know that Moonlight Sonata is the creepiest piece of music a human being has ever concocted and most times you hear it it’s a clear sign that you need to get the fuck out of wherever you are immediately. Nobody ever seems to play it because hey, it’s a beautiful piece of classical music. It’s almost always being played by a ghost trying to mess with you, which I assume was not Beethoven’s original intention. Oh and the piano is playing the song by itself, because of course it fucking is.
Dad comes in and scares the shit out of Jerry, and then he proceeds to get far too excited at the idea of a player piano being left in the house. He wants to polish it up, give it a coat of wax and, well, have a piano I guess. He wants to make it a project for he and Jerry to work on but Jerry doesn’t want any part of it, goes the complete dick route and states “I have a life”. Clearly you don’t asshole! You’re wearing a pasta strainer on your head and pretending to be a space alien! Stop being a fuck and fix that haunted piano with your father! At least the show acknowledges what a lying prick this kid is by having him immediately go back to his alien dream scenario and his Dad just looks on with a face showing clear thoughts of “where the hell did I go wrong with this kid?”
You know, maybe horror movies have just ruined me, but if I moved into a new house where a piano was still sitting there abandoned, I would immediately assume that shit was haunted and have it destroyed it promptly. I would not consider for a second the possibility that maybe the former residents simply didn’t want it, or perhaps it was just too heavy for them to get out of there so they chose to leave it behind. Nope, my only thought would be “fuck that, a ghost is going to be playing this tonight so this thing has got to go!” I think I would make for an excellent episode of any renovation show. “No closets! Ghost kids pop out of those things all the time and I won’t have it!” “I want this basement door made of steel in case my wife gets possessed and I have to hide behind it. That ax she has won’t cut it against pure steel!” Give me a call W Network, I’m here all day.
The next morning Jerry overhears his parents talking about what a loser their son is, and how he should be going out and making friends instead of running around playing make believe. So he goes out and pretends to play baseball before he meets his new next door neighbor Kim. Jerry wants some of that Kim action so he spur of the moment decides to take piano lessons to impress her. Clearly he lucked out as he ended up living next to the only girl in the country who would be impressed by someone taking piano lessons.
That night, ghosts happen. Jerry once again hears Moonlight Sonata playing from the piano downstairs and instead of doing the smart thing of hiding under the covers and crying, he instead goes down there to check it out. There he sees a poor special effect of a ghost playing the song. Actually, for some reason the lackluster effects made the ghost way creepier. I think it’s the bizarre way she moves. The ghost tells him to “stay away” and Jerry freaks out.
Now we see where all this “our kid is a weirdo” stuff has been leading when the parents think he’s making up the stuff about the ghost because of his active imagination. I’ve always felt that parents who do this are assholes. Again, maybe it’s just my movie warped brain, but if my son came to me and said he saw a ghost playing our piano, I would at the very least check it out before telling him “fuck off liar”. But these parents ain’t having it and completely dismiss Jerry’s claims.
His Mom drops him off for piano lessons at Dr. Shreek’s School, a school you would never ever let your child go to because look at that name! Not to mention the fact that it’s out in the middle of nowhere and looks more like the kind of place you’d score cocaine than learn to play a musical instrument. Then further evidence continues to pile up as to why Jerry should never set foot inside this place. There’s a robot security system at the front door, the piano music inside is Moonlight Sonata, and Dr. Shreek himself looks like Santa Claus if he were an eccentric painter and liked to jovially murder people. He’s played by the same guy, Aaron Tager, who plays the recurring role of Dr. Vink on Are You Afraid of the Dark? Clearly Mr. Tager has the market cornered on playing eccentric guys on 90’s horror themed kid’s shows. Also in case there was any remaining doubt that this place may not be quite on the level, Shreek starts to rub Jerry’s hands and tell him how perfect they are, in front of his Mom no less! I hope she at the very least had a moment’s pause when she saw that.
The first piano lesson is relatively uneventful, with Shreek once again complimenting Jerry’s hands before saying that his no longer work as they used to. Gee, I wonder if those two ideas are in some way connected. Because Jerry sucks, he leaves the lesson room and immediately starts pretending he is a world famous explorer, venturing through a door marked Do No Enter as a start to his “adventure”. At this point I am fully prepared to admit that there is something the matter with this kid. I have trouble relating to a protagonist who is clearly out of his god damn mind.
He winds up down in the basement where he is promptly chased by a robot, creating another checkmark in the “hey maybe this piano school is fucked” column. It turns out though that it’s just a cleaning robot, created by what is apparently the smartest janitor on the face of the planet, Mr. Toggle. He tells Jerry that Shreek was talking to him about how amazing his hands are, which is strange because I don’t think Jerry ever left Shreek’s presence in the time he was at the school.
That night Jerry has a dream he’s playing the piano before a ghost possesses him and makes him play worse for whatever reason. He wakes up, once again hears Moonlight Sonata, and once again makes the foolish decision to go down and check it out instead of screaming and jumping out his closed bedroom window. The ghost is once again down there and this time lays out her message far more clearly, flat out telling Jerry to stay away from the Shreek school. Where was that message the other night before he physically went there? Come on ghost, that’s not how you do it. Your cryptic message delivery skills are weak.
Once again Jerry tries to convince his parents about what he saw but they don’t believe him this time either. In fact, this time they take things a step further and flat out tell Jerry he probably needs help since he just told them he can’t continue to take piano lessons because a ghost told him not to. Granted, that would be a pretty hard pill to swallow. So Jerry decides to take at least one more piano lesson since I guess he isn’t even convinced he isn’t a complete lunatic.
During this second lesson, Shreek once again starts screaming about how amazing Jerry’s hands are, only this time Shreek seems to have a complete mental break and this is where the episode gets truly amazing. Shreek starts running and stumbling after Jerry, constantly screaming “Beautiful hands! Hands! Beeeauuuutiful haaaaands! Beautiful hands!” The fact that Tager was able to get through this without laughing, quitting or crying means he deserves an Emmy because oh my goodness. Seriously, this clip is on Youtube and you need to stop whatever you’re doing (actually no because clearly you’re reading this, so maybe wait like two minutes and then go check it out) and see this because it is glorious. Though at the same time, I’m not going to say that experiencing this in real life wouldn’t be the scariest shit on the planet because it absolutely would be.
Shit continues to get bonkers when during the chase, Jerry bursts into a large room featuring a whole bunch of pianos that are being played by pairs of floating human hands. We don’t get a lot of time to process this before Shreek bursts in all “haaaaaaands!” Then Toggle busts out a remote control and powers Shreek down. Shreek was a damn robot! But he has been shut down and it looks like everything is going to work out just fine.
But wait! Toggle starts molesting Jerry’s hands and talking about how lovely they are. So he’s a bad guy as well! We then quickly and awkwardly cut to Jerry running out of the school and getting into his parent’s car. We cut back to a view of the front door of the school as we see sheets of music flying out through the doors because wind I guess? I’m really not following what is happening at this point. Then Jerry is suddenly back at home and playing baseball with his neighbor, who we haven’t seen since her first introduction. She comments he has good hands, and the episode concludes. The end? That finale felt incredibly rushed and as I sat there watching the credits, nothing about this was sitting right with me. I started to remember scenes, both from the book and from my initial memories of watching the episode, that were nowhere to be found here.
Sooooo it turns out I was watching a heavily censored version of the episode. I don’t know if since its initial airing they decided that a lot of the content was just a little too intense for kids, but there’s a whole lot of stuff missing in a few of the versions I was able to track down. Finally I found the full version and just had to see what scenes I missed out on in my first viewing. So at that point, I became the first human being in history to sit down and watch the same episode of Goosebumps twice in a row. It turns out the episode is way better when it’s fully in tact!
For starters, the scene where Jerry first discovers the piano playing by itself is longer as here we get the first view of the old lady ghost as she appears behind Jerry and stands behind him for a few moments as he watches the piano play. The first time he comes downstairs and sees the ghost is far more effective as we can clearly hear the ghost tell him to “stay away” multiple times. The effects on the ghost are still quite poor, and it certainly doesn’t help that here we are getting a far better look at them, but I maintain the janky effect quality makes the ghost way creepier.
The ending though is completely different from the weird censored version. After the amazing “BEAUTIFUL HANDS” scene (and a much longer view of the severed, floating sets of hands playing the pianos), we get the same revelation that Shreek is a robot created by Toggle. However after the follow-up twist that Toggle is also interested in Jerry’s hands (which I don’t get the big deal over, they don’t look very special to me), we get some additional details. Turns out robot hands are nearly impossible to replicate so Toggle has to sever the hands of children instead. Pretty dark shit for Goosebumps actually. This time instead of a sudden jump cut to the front of the school, the ghost from Jerry’s house appears and starts berating Toggle about how he never practiced piano enough? So I guess it’s his Mom? It’s never really said explicitly. Then we see the same shot of Jerry running outside and the flying sheet music, only this time the ghost comes screaming out of the front door. There’s no reason for her to do this other than to prove to Jerry’s parents that he’s not actually crazy, which is a nice gesture on the ghost’s part I suppose but I’m reasonably confident this family is never going to recover from this.
Perhaps the creepiest moment though comes after the aforementioned scene of Jerry and his neighbor playing baseball/hockey or whatever it is they’re doing. They’re throwing a baseball against a bouncy net thing and then catching it. Seems they could get the same effect by simply throwing the ball to one another but then again, I don’t know sports. Anyway, after this scene we cut back to the school where we see that Ghost Mom is going to force Toggle to play piano for the rest of his life. That’s a pretty terrible way to go, but the Bible makes it pretty clear that that’s what happens when you sever the hands of children in an effort to get their flying hands to play piano music for you so you can relax and listen to Beethoven.
In its full form, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder is still a surprisingly dark, effective piece of storytelling, especially for Goosebumps. Sure the character of Jerry is pretty annoying and the “BEAUTIFUL HANDS!’ scene is completely ridiculous, but the clear murder of children and the ghost lady with stumps for hands, screaming at everybody make for a handful of pretty unsettling moments. Easily the highlight of the series so far and I’m quite sure it will remain in the top tier of episodes even as I make my way through the rest of these.