Leave it to Sam Raimi and his Ghost House Pictures to curate the perfect entry point horror film for kids with Nightbooks. An adaptation of J. A. White’s middle grade book of the same name, this Netflix original harkens back to the ‘80s era of filmmaking where it was understood that giving tweens and teens light nightmares was a cinematic rite of passage. A big part of the fun of Nightbooks is that it doesn’t pander or pull any punches with its jump scares or dark moments.
Right from the top, director David Yarovesky doesn’t dither with setup and gets right into the plight of young Alex (Winslow Fegley). A middle schooler with a penchant for all things horror, he’s stomping around his darkly decorated house, appropriately Halloween-themed for his birthday, as his parents whisper about their concerns for his off-kilter obsession. While they worry, Alex packs a bag full of his notebooks filled with original stories and gets into his apartment’s elevator. Only it doesn’t let him off on the ground floor.
It drops him off on a creepily desolate floor where the door to 4E is wide open, featuring a tasty slice of pumpkin pie and a small TV playing The Lost Boys. As it turns out, Alex is an easy mark because that’s all it takes for him to get trapped inside the busily decorated abode of Natasha (Krysten Ritter). She’s a witch that lures children into her clutches and if there’s nothing special about them, they’re dispatched with nary a second thought. It’s only Alex’s books, filled with scary stories, that saves him, with Natasha demanding he read her a new story every night.
Alex soon meets the only other residents of the apartment: Lenore the hairless cat and fellow tween prisoner Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), the de facto housekeeper at Natasha’s scary beck and call. Reading from his Nightbooks of original stories only lasts for a while and then Alex starts to panic because he’s been hiding a potent case writer’s block that’s keeping his creative tank empty.
Screenwriters 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 beasties for Alex, Yasmin and Lenore to fight. As they navigate their environs with more assurance, the overarching mystery revealed is engaging and challenging enough to keep your attention throughout. As for the frights, they rely a lot on booming sound design and jump scares, but there’s also some clever use of shadows and camerawork to imply some very dark things rather than seeing them. And there’s even some Gen X Easter eggs that will keep parents more than entertained.
A lot of credit also goes to Fegley and Jewett, who make you believe in the stakes of their strange predicament and sell the plausibility of their slow crawl towards friendship. Fegley also lands the emotional beats in the third act, which adds a lot of relatable resonance to why Alex is so upset in the opening minutes. Without being maudlin or corny, he earns our admiration and empathy and becomes a quiet hero because of it. And of course, Ritter’s Natasha is a wickedly unhinged villain that never dips into camp. The actress has that rare superpower of being able to go big, but always tempering it with her innate acerbic edge. Plus, her look and wardrobe are divine. She has an eerie resemblance to Coraline’s mom from the Laika movie, just dressed in ensembles that look like they came from a cheap tulle and rhinestone trunk sale. It’s bonkers on the eyes, but Natasha’s menace and bite remain a threat to the end.
That said, Nightbooks could do with a bit of an edit. It gets bloaty with some elements, like segueing into the real-time portrayal of three of Alex’s stories. While visually interesting, they cause a bit of drag, but it’s certainly not fatal. By story’s end, I was happy to spend time in this original story that treats younger audiences, and the horror genre, with respect.
Director: David Yarovesky
Writer: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Starring: Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett, Krysten Ritter
Release Date: September 15, 2021 (Netflix)
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and The Story of Marvel Studios in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.