Maybe as tricky as mixing horror and comedy, the gateway horror movie is tough to get right. It needs to be scary, but not traumatizing, while being for kids yet not childish. In the 1980s, Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Gate, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space introduced a generation of kids to the horror genre. For 90s kids, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hocus Pocus, and The Witches are considered childhood classics. Tim Burton movies, at one point, were prerequisites for introducing bigger kids to more spooky fare. More recently, Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark delivered some big-screen fights for pre-teens. With Halloween around the corner, Netflix has released its adaptation of J.A. White’s novel, Nightbooks. Boasting a visually imaginative world of haunts and scares, like the recent The House with a Clock In Its Walls, critics have been impressed with Nightbooks.
Alex loves all things horror. His bedroom is plastered with horror movie posters, collectibles, and books. And he’s aspiring horror writer. But other kids think he’s ‘creepy’ so when his best friend skips his birthday party, Alex decides to burn all his stories in the apartment building boiler room. On the way to the basement, the elevator abruptly stops outsides a mysterious apartment room. When Alex investigates, he’s immediately trapped by an evil witch. With no escape, Alex must keep the witch entertained with nightly readings from his stories. Knowing his value to the witch is limited, Alex, alongside another captive child, Yazmin, plot their escape.
Nightbooks Brings an Imaginative, ‘Big Screen’ World to the Small Screen
Even some of the better Netflix feature movies suffer from the same problem – they just don’t feel cinematic. That’s not a problem for Nightbooks. Whether it’s the production design or direction itself, Nightbooks looks and feels like a big Halloween movie. Director David Yarovesky (Brightburn) aptly balances scares with whimsical world-building. While there’s several nail-biting scenes – the best of which includes a creepy crawly in the night nursery – they are never too tense for younger audiences. Courtesy of some impressive set and art design, Nightbooks also boasts an imaginative, eyepopping world beautifully captured by Robert McLachlan’s cinematography. Yarovesky makes a few interesting creative choices. In particular, Nightbooks’ visual approach to Alex’s storytelling scenes are reminiscent of some of Tim Burton’s best past work.
Whether it’s the production design or direction itself, Nightbooks looks and feels like a big Halloween movie.
But it’s the story that elevates Nightbooks above other horror-lite fare. Based on J. A. White’s novel, writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis have crafted a surprisingly layered and emotional story. On its surface, Nightbooks is a rich, modern take on dark fairy tales. Even with some familiar material, Daughtry and Iaconic include a few surprises. Most importantly, Nightbooks invests both of its child characters with a heartfelt journey. No, this isn’t the first movie aimed at kids with themes about friendship and embracing differences. Nonetheless, Nightbooks does these ideas justice. If you’re not a little choked up when Alex finally tells the story about why he was going to burn his books than you may not have a heart.
Nightbooks Remembers to Include Interesting Characters In Its Eyepopping World
By and large, three actors anchor Nightbooks over its runtime. Though child actors can be hit or miss, both Lidya Jewett and Winslow Fegley are fantastic. Their performances aren’t just good given their age – they’re just exceptional performances. Each actor has an opportunity to tug on your heartstrings with earnest portrayals. They encapsulate the wonder and vulnerability of childhood. Moreover, their growing friends adds a layer to the movie that gives the movie a bit of emotional weight.
…Krysten Ritter looks like she’s having an absolute blast.
As Nightwatch’s evil witch, Natacha, Krysten Ritter looks like she’s having an absolute blast. And audiences are likely to have just as much fun watching her. Ritter turns in a glammy performance that’s equal parts funny and menacing. Her penchant for knit-picking at details offers one of several recurring funny bits to the movie. Costume designer Autumn Steed gives Natacha a big, bold look. In turn, Ritter owns those outfits, making the character larger-than-life. If there was ever going to be a sequel, you’d want to spend more time with each of these characters.
Nightbooks is Kid-Friendly Horror For Adults and Children Alike
From start to finish, Nightbooks is an absolute joy to watch. As compared to other Netflix features, this one looks and feels cinematic. There’s genuine scares and emotional stakes alongside three winning performances. In addition, Yarovesky shows some visual storytelling flair next to a surprisingly layered screenplay from Daughtry and Iaconis. Older kids should enjoy it and so will adults. Put this one on your ‘Halloween and Chill’ list if you have kids who can handle light scares. In fact, you don’t need kids to enjoy Nightbooks.