Fairy tales and scary stories make for a perfect gateway into the genre for many children. Who among us isn’t familiar with the nightmarish imagery and stories of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Or the grim, bloody origins of Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Nightbooks, based on J.A. White‘s children’s fantasy-horror novel, takes the concept and runs with it, celebrating the outcast Monster Kid with a new gateway horror that blends whimsy with terror.
Alex (Come Play’s Winslow Fegley) adores scary things. His bedroom is decked out with posters and horror décor, and his favorite pastime includes coming up with new scary stories. The only problem is that no one around Alex shares in that passion or understands it. When no one shows up to his party, he overhears his parents arguing about handling his lack of friends, citing horror as a concern, prompting Alex to run away. Alex doesn’t get very far; he passes by an apartment with a door wide open and the TV playing The Lost Boys. It’s a trap. Alex gets stuck inside the magical apartment and forced to tell an evil witch (Krysten Ritter) a scary story every night if he hopes to live. Alex must team up with another prisoner, Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), to find a way to escape.
Nightbooks takes a while to find its groove. Director David Yarovesky (Brightburn) toys with the narrative structure, initially presenting Alex’s plight to play out potentially in anthology form. As he reads from his notebook, the stories come to life in macabre stage play style until the evil witch cuts in with harsh criticisms and exasperated death threats. It’s the type of setup that might lend unique visual interest but threatens to overstay its welcome fast through repetition.
Luckily, the moment Yasmin begins to trust Alex a bit more and take him under her wing, the more it becomes less about the stories than the storyteller. Nightbooks finally comes to life once Yasmin takes Alex into the witch’s night garden to delicately remove pests, and all hell breaks loose. It’s the first overt sign of producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert’s touch, and the momentum picks up from there. It’s also the first sign that actual physical danger could befall the young leads.
Yarovesky, along with writers Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis, begins to embrace horror fantasy whimsy in a big way. Emphasis on fantasy. The more we learn about the witch, her magical apartment, and Yasmin’s tenure as her prisoner, the zanier and more unpredictable it gets. It never loses its sight on the horror, though; expect dark twists to the fantasy and The Lost Boys to pop up again in a fist-pumping way.
Ritter is the queen of the eye role and biting sarcasm, and she gets to play that up here with a vampy enslaver and destroyer of children. She’s having a ball. Fegley brings the emotional heart, and Jewett shines as the resilient and hardened teen learning the merits of friendship. It is, however, a movie made with the young demographic in mind. So as heartfelt as Alex’s lonely tears can be, expect gags like invisible cats pooping very visible turds on the dinner table, too.
Nightbooks takes a while to warm up, but the back half brings the gateway horror fun. It’s silly, whimsical, and creative, with a charming pair of leads. It’s for the young and the young at heart, wrapping a very familiar tale in creative horror-fantasy packaging. Using The Lost Boys’ song “Cry Little Sister” as a rallying anthem certainly helps.
Nightbooks is now streaming on Netflix.