Synopsis – Follows Alex, a boy obsessed with scary stories who is imprisoned by an evil young witch in her contemporary New York City apartment.
My Take – With the genre continues to be dominated by R-rated gore fests, deeply profound A24 flicks, and jump scares-filled PG-13 supernatural thrillers, in recent years, horror films aimed at young ones, which were quite popular back in 80s and 90s, have mostly faded away, with only the live action Goosebumps films, despite their commercial successes, barely making a blip.
It is probably that’s why this Netflix release, which is has Sam Raimi as one of its producers, feels so fresh and warranted.
Based on the middle grade book of the same name from author J. A. White, here, director David Yarovesky (Brightburn, The Hive) and writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, embraces the connections children have to horror by creating a deeply atmospheric, exquisitely well-made dark fantasy film that plays with your mind in some pretty clever ways, constantly forcing you to re-evaluate what is happening in its onscreen world.
Most importantly, though the film is very clearly made for families to enjoy together, it firmly sits in the horror category by never pandering with its darker moments. While it might be a bit on the scary side for young kids, this one is the perfect film to cuddle up with under the blanket as a family, and laugh and jump all the way through its bloodless terror and comedic one-liners.
The story follows Alex (Winslow Fegley), a middle schooler obsessed with scary stories. But when Alex is seemingly ostracized for his love of horror, he rips down his posters, throws away his magazines, and sneaks out of his own apartment in the middle of the night to burn his self-written books of scary stories in the basement boiler room.
But instead of discarding his stories, Alex finds himself lured into a mysterious apartment room with Lost Boys playing on the TV and a piece of pumpkin pie, only waking up find himself trapped by an evil witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter).
A collector of children, Natacha only keeps those who can be useful to her, and for Alex, that means telling the witch a scary story every night to stay alive. Forced at the point of a pencil to conjure up the most frightening story he can, Alex soon learns from fellow captive, Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), that sometimes reality is scarier than anything you can imagine.
If the plot sounds a bit familiar, it’s because the film taps into classic stories and fairy tales children have grown up listening to or reading from books, however, it does all that without sacrificing its originality. While there are only a handful of settings in this film, each of them are done extremely well. The witch’s apartment looks exactly how you would expect a witch’s apartment to look, it is outdated and filled with cobwebs, and of course has many rooms inside of it.
And of course, it very clearly has that Sam Raimi feel. All of his signature cinematic styles are present, and they all come together for something truly horrific. Here, writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis have scripted a tight adventure within the confines of this magical apartment.
There’s a cathedral-like library for Alex to explore for clues to escape and a magical black-light garden with terrifying Raimi influenced beasts for Alex, and Yasmin to fight. As they navigate their environment with more assurance, the overarching mystery revealed is engaging and challenging enough to keep your attention throughout.
Regardless, the most interesting element of the film remains the stories Alex tells, tales which was embossed in a unique way, making each segment particularly stand out. While the film, despite a run time of 103 minutes, suffers from some pacing issues, the film acts as a stellar and whimsical doorway to the power of horror. Not only does the film’s visual appeal come from the story itself, but the art direction is also superb, the production design breathtaking, and the costuming well perfected.
Performances wise, Krysten Ritter is fabulously evil as the witch. Here, Ritter makes being bad look so much fun to the extent that one is forced to draw comparisons to Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Her wardrobe is bonkers on the eyes, but Natasha’s menace and bite remain a threat to the end.
Both Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett are likeable enough presence to make them root able. All too often a film can be brought down because of the child actors not doing a particularly good job, but these two excel at their roles. They have an on screen chemistry whether they are getting along or not, and it is clear they must have a bonded in real life as well. On the whole, ‘Nightbooks’ is a wickedly fun dark fantasy horror that is just enough creepy and creative.
Directed – David Yarovesky
Rated – PG
Run Time – 103 minutes