If you are a horror fan who found your calling young, then Nightbooks sees you. The opening scene of Netflix’s new horror-lite offering finds the film’s pint-size protagonist, Alex (Winslow Fegley), in a bedroom festooned with posters from the same scary movies we all grew up on, from The Lost Boys to A Nightmare on Elm Street — movies that weren’t necessarily made for kids, yet made a deep impression on the generation of youngsters who managed to clap their eyeballs on them anyway. Even our fantasy movies were the stuff of nightmares (looking at you, Willow and The Neverending Story)! Kids and horror go way back, all the way back to the impressive body count in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and you can blame it on the primal nature of the genre or the ripeness of youthful imaginations but the fact remains that a healthy dose of fear can be downright tantalizing for some tots. Nightbooks sees that too, and tries to deliver a horror movie a new generation of kids can call their own, while their parents kick back and save the Freddy and Jason introductions for a different family movie night.
I had a friend once remark that I was a great child to know growing up because I “was obsessed with death, knew what sex was, and didn’t believe in God.” I’m sure her parents would have had something different to say about that, if they’d known the sort of influence I was, and MY parents would cringe to hear about it now, but I’m lucky that my… unique interests helped me gain acceptance from my peers early on instead of isolating me from them. Unfortunately, poor Alex’s spookier tendencies haven’t paved the way for him with his classmates the way mine did, and the film begins as he packs up his so-called Nightbooks — journals of horror stories he’s written to pass the time — and tries to cart them to the boiler room of his apartment building in hopes of wiping his slate clean and starting a normal life. Along the way, he’s distracted by a mysterious apartment with a door cracked invitingly open, beyond which lies a television playing The Lost Boys and a slice of pumpkin pie. Who could resist, right? And that’s how Alex gets himself trapped by a colorful, spiteful sprite of a witch named Natacha.
Krysten Ritter plays Natacha with a cold sneer and a colder giggle. From her icy blue locks to her stompy platform boots, Natacha isn’t exactly the wizened hag Alex would have written for himself — but she’s the witch he’s got, and she’s a formidable jailer. She spares Alex’s life on one condition: He has to read her a brand new scary story every night. To make sure he’s staying on task, she sets her fierce guard-cat, the occasionally invisible Lenore, to watch over Alex. And to show him the ropes, there’s Yasmin (Lidya Jewett) — another hapless pre-teen who wandered into Natacha’s trap and has been stuck there for years. It’s through Yasmin that we learn not only about Natacha but about the apartment itself, an impossible TARDIS-like construct that lures children in of its own volition, travels anywhere it wants in the world, and contains multitudes. There’s a library ten stories tall, filled with horror stories that have already been read. There’s a garden of magical plants that thrive in darkness. There may even be a deep, dark woods hidden somewhere in that apartment, the stuff fairy tales are made of. One thing Yaz can’t explain, though, is why the apartment itself seems to react to Alex’s scary stories — and why Natacha seems so desperate to keep it appeased.
Nightbooks is based on a novel by J.A. White, and is very much a riff on “Hansel and Gretel” by way of Scheherazade. Of course, that’s not the only pedigree this movie has that’s worth mentioning. The promos were quick to tout Sam Raimi as the producer, which always bodes well, but it’s the director and writers we all should be talking about — the very people behind some of the darkest, most effed-up sh*t I’ve seen in the past few years. I’m of course referring to director David Yarovesky, who shot the Big Bad Superman movie Brightburn, and the writing duo of Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, who penned
The Conjuring spin-off The Curse of La Llorona the unintentionally terrifying sick-teens-who-wanna-touch joint Five Feet Apart. Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying any of those movies were good exactly. Though Brightburn never quite managed to elevate itself beyond being a feature-length thought exercise, Yarovesky proved he had a knack for the visual storytelling of horror, crafting some truly gruesome set pieces out of little more than shadows and fake blood. Meanwhile Five Feet Apart deftly found the existential dread beating at the heart of a young adult romance and turned it into something deeply unsettling, even though I’m not exactly sure if that was supposed to be the assignment. Point is, by joining forces these creators managed to thread a very fine needle and make Nightbooks genuinely creepy, but not intimidatingly scary. Yarovesky finds a way to lighten the fear factor by turning spider gore into vibrant splatters no different than a paintball game, or filming an attack as a shadow play across a wall. Meanwhile Daughtry and Iaconis keep the story tightly focused on the budding companionship between Alex and Yaz, allowing their loyalty and bravery to guide the audience safely through the darkest encounters. This is a movie where even the monsters have candy corn teeth, and the vast mysteries of the apartment keep it from feeling too much like a trap.
Ritter does her part to keep things light by having too much fun chewing the scenery in her hot pink ensembles and claw-tipped gloves to really frighten anyone. She’s the villain kids will want to grow up to be, and that’s the highest praise I can offer. There’s a running gag where Natacha fact-checks Alex as he reads his stories, correcting him about the metaphysical nature of ghosts or the time it takes a vampire to grow their fangs. Her point is that truth matters in storytelling because it’s what makes the stories matter. It’s sort of a mini lesson in what makes horror tick. Vampires and ghosts and witches aren’t scary on their own — it’s what they represent, the guilt and greed and loneliness they speak to in the hearts of all of us. Good horror doesn’t make us afraid — it simply shows us the things we’re already afraid of. It taps into something real. It’s also a life lesson for Alex, who realizes that the thing he worked so hard to deny — his love of scary stories — is the very key to his survival. By embracing his truest, weirdest self he has a shot at finding his own happy ending, alongside people who can appreciate the real him as well.
If your kids enjoyed films like Coraline or The House With A Clock In Its Walls or anything related to Goosebumps then I think they’ll handle Nightbooks just fine. Aside from the fact that it’s overtly ABOUT scary stories, I don’t think anything in it is scarier than your average Harry Potter film. And if they walk away wondering about those horror movies Alex was so obsessed with, well — wait a year and maybe that just-announced remake of The Lost Boys will be worth their time? (Kidding, jeez — just let them get their Kiefer on!)
Nightbooks is streaming on Netflix as of Sept. 15, 2021
Header Image Source: Netflix