Director: David Yarovesky
Screenplay: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis
Starring: Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett, Krysten Ritter
Review: RJ Bland
Horror isn't really meant for children is it? The one thing that connects all genre movies is their aim to elicit some sense of fear or dread in the viewer, whether that be the subtle chills of something like The Others or the full-on terror of The Descent. Either way, they're not the sort of films you want your pre-teenage kids to watch are they? The obvious answer is no, however there's something appealing about the thrills on offer that (some) children naturally gravitate towards. Ask any mature horror fan how old they were when they realised they liked scary movies and the chances are, they will tell you they were quite young. Children as young as ten or eleven, watching Scream at a sleepover or taping A Nightmare on Elm Street off the telly (ah those were the days) to watch when their parents were out – this kind of thing has been going on for decades. Much of this was done without parental consent (which let's face it, was all part of the joy of it) and it's difficult to recommend that anyone watches certain horror movies before they are old enough – age ratings are there for a reason after all. So, how do you let your kids get a taste of horror without giving them nightmares or sleepless nights? The answer - Gateway Horror movies. Films aimed at families that have a sprinkling of horror have been around for years. The Goonies (1985), The Witches (1990), The Monster Squad (1987), Arachnophobia (1990) are all great examples of films that offer thrills mild enough not to scare kids shitless and more recently we've had stuff like Goosebumps (2015) and The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018). And you can now add Netlfix's Nightbooks to the list...
Alex is a young boy living with his mum and dad in New York. But he's not interested in the same stuff as other kids his age. His passion is horror. Well, more specifically, writing horror – and he has written countless stories in his 'Nightbooks' collection. However, after being humiliated at his birthday party, he vows never to write another scary story again. He sneaks out of his apartment whilst his parents are arguing and gets the elevator to the basement so he can burn his books in the furnace. However, before he gets to the furnace room, he passes an open door to another apartment and notices that The Lost Boys (classic!) is playing on a TV set in the middle of the room. He goes inside and the door slams shut behind him. When he wakes up, he realises there is no way out. A woman appears, called Natasha, who informs Alex that she is a witch and that unless he has something to offer her, she will kill him. Luckily, she's quite curious about his penchant for writing scary stories and tells him that he is to write and read her a new story every night, or he will be deemed expendable. Alex soon discovers that there is another girl already trapped inside the magic apartment, called Yazmin. Together they try and hatch a plan to escape the witches evil grasp. Although that's easier said than done...
Being a PG rated movie, you might think that the horror elements would be few and far between. And although the first half of Nightbooks is relatively tame (and a bit repetitive), the second half is filled with danger and monsters and child eating witches. Some of the images towards the end feel as if they could belong in a James Wan movie. Of course there's an undercurrent of comedy (including an invisible cat taking a dump on someone's breakfast) and lashings of fantasy that mean that none of it ever feels too heavy or oppressive. It strikes the right balance between spooky and whimsical.
As mentioned, the film takes a little while to find its stride and it suffers from a lack of action in the early stages. It threatens to becoming a bit of an anthology too, with Alex's short stories being visualised whilst he reads them to his captor, however none of these are quite engaging enough to offer anything other than a brief glimmer of interest. However, Nightbooks steps it up once Alex and Yazmine start to become pals and begin to conspire to escape. It's here that we begin to delve into our central duo a little more and the film reveals some semblance of an emotional core underneath all of the fantastical zaniness. Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett make for amiable enough leads but it's Kyrsten Ritter's performance as the wicked witch that stands out. She makes being evil almost look like fun.
However there are some issues that prevent Nightbooks from reaching the heights of Goosebumps or The House with a Clock in its Walls. The principle flaw being that the characters of Alex and Yazmine just aren't developed enough to make any of this quite as entertaining or tense as it could be. Fegley and Jewett are absolutely fine but the script just doesn't give them anything that makes their exchanges feel anything but perfunctory. Whilst the dark fantasy elements of the last act may cover some of these cracks, the failure to sufficiently build up our characters or their backstory (we are pretty much thrown right into the witches apartment from the get go) is still a little damaging. And there's a chance that younger viewers and adults alike will find the repetitious living room scene (you'll know the one when you see it) outstay its welcome after the third or fourth go.
Character issues aside, the over-the-top nature of Nightbooks sort of wins through by the end and in some way, it feels like an ode to all those aspiring creative types (whether they be adult or children) who like their stories a little darker than most.