Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones) plays a witch who traps a boy in a magical apartment in this kid-friendly(ish) fantasy horror. At a time where kids horror films seem all too rare, Liam Maguren found a lot of value in Nightbooks.
Our protective instincts spark, however, at the mere mention of things designed to scare children, which might explain the current lack of horror flicks aimed at children. Yes, there are plenty of enjoyable monster flicks for the whole family, but the Hotel Transylvania series is not out to incite fear. (Neither was the 2015 Goosebumps movie, for that matter.)
That’s why Nightbooks matters. Director David Yarovesky (whose debut horror Brightburn was definitely not for kids) takes his adaption of JA White’s book to some genuinely freaky places while also easing the frights with a candy-coated production, a lead character who loves horror, and a Krysten Ritter performance so hammy it belongs on the deli menu.
Horror nerd Alex, played by impressive youngster Winslow Fegley, loves nothing more than to write his own spooky stories. It’s not immediately clear why, but his parents aren’t too stoked with his hobby. In tears, Alex attempts to run away from home, only to find himself trapped in a magic apartment complex within a minute of running out the door.
He’s kept there by Natacha (Ritter), a witch who demands he reads her a scary story every night. It’s a bizarre request, but if Alex wants to avoid a fate worse than death, he has to take on the role of the world’s busiest freelance writer. Yasmin, played by the equally strong Lidya Jewett, is the only other child in the apartment. The rest… well… they got the worse-than-death treatment.
While Natacha’s threats are scary, Ritter plays the character more as a big meanie rather than a fearful monstrosity. Not a surprise when she spends less time threatening their lives and more time “critiquing” his stories with the toxic energy of a YouTube comments section. Sporting bubblegum blue hair and a cosplay getup, the campiness is clearly intentional, perhaps to dampen the bigger scares the film has in store.
And there are, indeed, proper monsters in this. One, in particular, gave me the shivers, and I can only describe it as a spider thing with legs made of knives and a head in the shape of a human skull. No thank you.
They save the biggest scare for the finale with some simmering tension slow-cooked to perfection. It’s a sterling example of how the monster in your imagination is scarier than anything the film could show you. Unfortunately, they also chose this moment to have Alex reveal the real reason he left home—a tender piece of backstory that would have been a real heartache had it not been undercut by the ticking-clock tension in the room.
And as valiant as it is to see a horror-loving kid being understood for his passion, the film only really explores this near the end. For a film that runs a little long at 103 minutes with wrinkly plot details that could have been smoothed out, it feels like it missed some key storytelling opportunities.
Nevertheless, Nightbooks still delivers an original small-scale spooky tale unafraid to be properly spooky and aided with enough fantasy flourishes to ignite young minds. While it might not be cinema-worthy, it’s perfectly placed on the Netflix Kids section where children can safely experience a bit of fear, knowing the pause button is just one touch away.