What to Watch Verdict
'Nightbooks' is a warm and wicked entry point for younger horror fans, with a few treats thrown in for older audiences who've seen everything from 'The Lost Boys' To Peter Jackson's goriest flicks.
📓 Krysten Ritter's wardrobe.
📓 A third act that has some legit screams.
📓 Heartwarming for the children who need it.
📓 Loses itself in the middle, very fluffy.
📓 A little late with its true horrors.
📓 More for kids than a balanced watch.
From producer Sam Raimi and director David Yarovesky (Brightburn) comes Nightbooks—a coddling, compassionate children’s horror adaptation about “weirdness” and what it means to be an outcast. Not the description you were expecting? As Netflix continues to corner the market on accessible gateway horror, Nightbooks utilizes the genre to discuss bullying, acceptance, and individuality in adolescent translations. “The thing that makes you weird makes them ordinary.” J.A. White’s source literature provides a sweetly enduring foundation for screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. They seem vastly more comfortable telling stories for knee-high audiences versus whatever happened with The Curse Of La Llorona.
It’s wholesome, packed with a love of all things spooky, and becomes undeniably entrenched in the more mature inclinations of Ghost House Pictures and Yarovesky during a rather frightful—teetering on age-appropriate—finale.
Aspiring horror novelist Alex (Winslow Fegley) flees his family’s apartment after cursing his love of anything devoutly genre. The Lost Boys and The Thing posters are betrayed; his mission is to incinerate his collection of authored short scary stories—his “Nightbooks”—to signify his evolution into normalcy. Unluckily for Alex, he’s lured into an apartment by a glowing red television playing scenes from the very films posterized on his bedroom walls. He’s captured by a wicked witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter) in her sparkly, shimmery wardrobe, who demands Alex read his Nightbooks or be discarded and deemed “useless.” The closet of children’s clothes assures Alex Natacha isn’t bluffing, which is corroborated by the only other living kid in the magical prison apartment, Yasmin (Lidya Jewett).
Nightbooks doesn’t soften the blow that childhood can be cruel when you don’t fit the conformist norms. Alex’s imagination is influenced by adoration for hard-R slasher flicks like Child’s Play 2 and ultra-gory brainbusters like Dead Alive, which drives away classmates and former best friends who don’t share the same macabre interests. As adults, we’re more equipped to handle these emotional stings—Alex doesn’t possess the experience to understand our differences make us unique. Yarovesky does well to ensure Alex’s arc experiences both the heartbreak of being isolated based on our loves and the fulfillment of realizing our value isn’t determined by others with narrow mindsets. Alex’s Nightbooks aren’t his enemy; they’re his lifeline and unifying creation.
I’ll admit Nightbooks doesn’t grade high on the terror scare for a significant portion, as Alex and Yasmin (sometimes “Yaz”) attempt over and over to escape Natacha’s doorless unit. There’s an altercation in Natacha’s "Night Nursery"—fluorescent “Demon Silk” threads and blacklight flora are like a garden meets a monster mini-golf course with night vision—when a skeletal-faced buggy critter hatches from a goopy egg sack. Its dagger feet click-clack as the miniature insectoid darts and attempts to swipe at both children, which is borderline spooky at best. We’re meant to be more enamored by Natacha’s glamour-goth meets disco ball gaudiness outfits and the secrets she’s withholding in a massive, stories-tall library where Alex is instructed to write more Nightbooks. Does it work? More times than not, Ritter’s presence succeeds.
Even cutaways to live enactments of Alex’s readings like “The Playground”—where a boy in search of his lost friend Jenny must escape a haunted playground—while enjoyable due to this live-action take on comic book cinematography, aren’t creepy beyond introductory levels. Nightbooks can become a bit plodding for older audiences as Alex cycles through the motions of finding himself at an immature age until Yarovesky bursts into a tensely terrifying final chapter that pulls heavily from Hansel & Gretel. Spoilers aside, Alex and Yasmine face enraged danger in the form of a candy-melded foe who presents herself right out of Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. The film’s pint-sized heroes sprint away from the malevolent entity as it busts through doors and screeches a banshee’s cackle, which I honestly can’t say will or won’t be too much for intended audiences. However, it’s creatively memorable and does what good gateway horror should—challenge children to appreciate pure horrors at a younger age.
In comparison to last year’s vastly more goofball, all-ages horror comedy A Babysitter’s Guide To Monster Hunting, Nightbooks holds steady on the idea that gateway horror should contain at least a smidge of something horrific. David Yarovesky completes the assignment of making smaller viewers feel comfortable in a world of invisible felines who dookie on lunch sandwiches and where feelings of loneliness are fought with friendship, earning his scarier basement furnace climax. Blessed be the renegades who aren’t afraid to be themselves—also blessed be Krysten Ritter and her hilarious delivery when belittling an up-and-coming author’s work (“Writers, always so insecure”). Nightbooks is charming, empowered, and baked with love, which is everything you can ask for from something with a less complex directive in the horror genre.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.