‘Nightbooks’ Review: The Word Wizard Meets The Witch

'Nightbooks' Review

The horror genre is not usually the first direction filmmakers think about when making movies for kids. Actually, parents try to avoid these kinds of flicks at all costs to save the little one’s fragile minds from several moons of nightmares. Therefore, it is paramount when a filmmaker goes down this rabbit hole to make sure that they hit the nail on the head. Otherwise, it will become a costly mistake. 

‘Nighbooks,’ the latest dark fantasy film from Netflix, deals with themes of child abuse and has some pretty terrifying critters and maybe too dark for the underage proving the fact that what works in a written format can sometimes be too scary to handle when displayed on the screen. Nevertheless, this feature will push audiences to the edge with numerous jump scares, black magic and spooky stories by the campfire. However, the playful format in which it is structured coupled with an immense tribute for creative young minds gives the feature a warmth that neutralizes the chills it delivers.  

David Yarovesky directs this movie from a script penned by Mikki Daughtry in collaboration with Tobias Iaconis. The title is based on a children’s book of the same name published in 2018 and written by J.A White. ‘Nightbooks’ stars Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett and Krysten Ritter and premiered on Netflix on September 15, 2021.

'Nightbooks' Review

This fantasy flick is produced by Sam Raimi, the pro behind the 1980s dark comedy-horror classic ‘The Evil Dead 2’ hence why it comes across as a kid-friendly version of this bone-chilling tale. Many aspects from the classic are present, from haunted locations to magical books and ancient specters to enchanted forests. What’s missing in this version, though, is the slapstick humor experienced in the aforementioned feature. Thankfully Krysten Ritter, who plays Natacha The Witch, has excellent experience playing baddies, and her delivery as a cackling hex who loves torturing kids comes out quite naturally. In fact, she 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.’ 

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The film doesn’t waste crucial time by introducing a weird situation in the protagonist’s life, a young boy called Alex, played by Winslow Fegley, who’s really great with his written words, especially terrifying tales. In the opening scenes, we encounter him distressed and emotionally overwhelmed; vulnerable as he is, he is lured into an enchanted apartment owned by the evil witch Natacha. This complex is massive and can only expand to hold anything the witch wants and can teleport everywhere in the world. We are not told why Alex is rattled until the film gets to the climax, which is extremely smart as it keeps audiences at the edge of their seats as the anticipation builds up.

After capturing Alex, Natacha feels like the young boy doesn’t add any value to her life hence she decides to dispose of off him. But Alex convinces the enchantress that he can narrate new scary stories to Natacha every day, to which she quickly agrees. But the catch is, the stories must pass the witch’s approval for them to count, and we must say she is as brutal as they come with her criticism. Thanks to Alex’s prowess with words, though he manages to nail his assignment albeit the challenges at hand.

Back to the magical house, he is not the only prisoner under Natacha’s captivity. There is another inmate, a slightly older girl called Yasmin, a role embodied by Lidya Jewett. Yasmin has a passion for science and magical botany as she tends to Natacha’s plants and handles other chores around the humongous residence hence why she is still alive. Together they start secretly hatching a plan to escape Natacha’s wicked grip.

The most interesting character of them all has got to be Lenore, a prickly cat who can quickly go incognito at will. Lenore’s journey is highly complex and takes an unexpected turn at some point. In general, ‘Nighbooks’ keeps its character numbers small, its story dynamics simple as it unravels the mystery surrounding each character’s personal psychology.

I already mentioned that Ritter’s embodiment of Natacha the witch is exemplary; however, this is enhanced by her general outlook. She sports a blue-hued hairdo, her makeup is sleek, and her style choices, fabulously evil and refreshing. Her costuming and makeup was done excellently and beautifully, bringing out her chameleon of a character that can turn from a bored nasty to a wrathful nightmare in the blink of an eye. Don’t be fooled by the girlishly pretty look of this character, though, as she is as evil and heartless as they come. She has creatures that look like spiders which can gouge one’s eyes right from their sockets, and to make it worse, she has some sort of portion candy that turns her two prisoners into mindless gluttons.

If the description sounds a bit familiar, it’s because ‘Nightbooks’ taps into classic stories and fairy tales children have grown up listening to or reading from books. For its x-factor, however, this movie wittingly uses its classic tomes without sacrificing its originality. 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 and makeup well perfected. 

Despite its suspenseful plot, the middle of the film is a bit dull, weighed down by the excessive use of CGI and a mystery that is too easy to unravel. The narrative is quite meaty, but the center feels a bit underdone. Still, the performances manage to make this flick still palatable.

‘Nightbooks’ exudes anthology vibes. Sadly these are not fully embraced as Alex’s stories are presented by the use of animated intervals, which feature barely enough times in the narrative while his storytelling sessions with Natacha feels like a ceremony. Alex’s short stories could have made the movie creepier compared to spending tons of time exploring the witch mystery.

Production of horror films for kids, of course, is a path trended by the daring few. However, ‘Nightbooks’ endears both kids, tweens and adults alike, and while it might send some little ones squabbling into their parent’s bed at night, it provides great relief only this genre can offer. Furthermore, kids always beat the evil beasts in movies in the end, so it is a nice way to toughen them up. ‘Nightbooks’ succeeds with its characters but stumbles with pacing and potency, but still, it is a great movie to watch, so grab that popcorn and munch away.

SCORE: 6/10