Nightbooks (2021) Is Perfect Feel-Good Horror for the Younger Crowd
First Non-Festival Release: September 15, 2021 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: David Yarovesky
Writer: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis, J.A. White
Runtime: 103 Minutes
Starring: Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett, Kyrsten Ritter
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Alex (Winslow Fegely) is a young boy living in New York City who loves writing horror stories. One night, however, something happens that pushes him to burn his life’s work: his collection of Nightbooks. On his way to the furnace, Alex is transported into another dimension: the apartment of a young witch named Natacha (Kyrsten Ritter). She gives Alex the ultimatum to write scary stories for her to spare him from the fate of being useless like other children who wandered into her trap. Every day he works alongside fellow captive Yasmin (Lidya Jewett) to make terrifying tales to tell Natacha before bed while they plot their escape.
Nightbooks is a charming and accessible kid’s horror film that works as a great entryway into the genre.
Blurring the lines between horror and fantasty, Nightbooks has a very dreamlike quality to it. Both in terms of direction and storytelling. Everything falls into place perfectly for Alex to not only survive his first encounter with the witch but to prove himself useful to her in writing scary stories. It’s very much a cathartic tale for him which has great payoff in the end when we learn why he is compelled to end his writing in the first place. There are some feel-good lessons on friendship and being true to yourself embedded in the script. It’s nothing that hasn’t been explored before, but it is still sentimental enough to appeal to parents wanting their children to learn from their media consumption.
As the youngest of the cast and the one with the most screen time, Winslow Fegley does have a heavy responsibility to play Alex well. He largely succeeds, giving enough vulnerability and emotion to make his character arc come through. He has his moments where he falters, most notably when he’s forced to yell, but he does a solid job for such a young actor. Fegley will have a bright career ahead of him. Alex is a character we have seen many times before, which isn’t a bad thing. The archetype works and Fegley handles all the right beats to make his journey realistic.
Supporting cast members Kyrsten Ritter and Lidya Jewett do great work here as well. Ritter has an alarmingly strong command of the screen. From her sharp voice, demanding attitude, and her uptight physicality, she embodies the things that terrify young kids the most and does so easily. She’s simply perfect for this role. Conversely, Jewett handles the more mature and seasoned Yasmin with enough grit and vulnerability. She injects personality into the resourceful and closed off pre-teenager. Although Yasmin’s role is never clearly defined in the film, Jewett gives a measured performance of her emotions as she finally begins to hope for an escape.
A visual smorgasbord of delightfully bright and syrupy colors and confections, Nightbooks brings as much style to the table as substance. The apartment possesses a mystical quality about itself that keeps the viewer enthralled in Alex and Yasmin’s peril. Despite the duo being trapped in one location for most of the film, the world built within their world is expansive and frightening. Character design is another strength of the film, particularly of the witch. In all the different forms taken throughout the film, they all are terrifying in their own way and evoke an unsettling reaction in the audience. Great effects work keeps the story immersive and maintains the focus of the audience on the story. From magical beasts to melting witches, the entire film is produced to the nines.
Very fast paced and to the point, Nightbooks is light horror fantasy with enough PG bite to creep out the kids. Adult viewers may find it a retread of the stories they hold dear, but many can find the charm underneath the repetition. Good children’s horror is hard to come by and it should be celebrated when it is cultivated well. Nightbooks does just that.
Sometimes a little too sickly sweet but always endearing, Nightbooks is a colorful storybook horror fantasy to put on during Halloween season for the kiddos. The young actors are largely capable of pulling off their big roles and Ritter does great work as the strict and malevolent witch keeping them in check. It falls into some plot conventions and certainly doesn’t give adults in the room anything new to chew on, but it still works as an effective and creepy movie for young kids. Adults and horror fanatics may find more to love in the top notch set design, effects, and imaginative scope of the story more than anything. Nightbooks won’t keep you up at night, but it’ll certainly put you to sleep with a smile.
Overall Score? 6/10