A boy obsessed with scary stories is imprisoned by an evil young witch in her modern New York City apartment.
A new dark fantasy film in the mould of children’s classics from the last 40 years, Nightbooks is a new and relatively small-scale Netflix film production. Based on a popular 2018 novel by J.A White, it has a primary cast of just three, and its places are limited to studio sets. The story itself s a Halloween-y riff on the Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Islamic folk tales. That book’s wraparound plot involves Scheherazade telling a new tale to her husband each night, lest he fulfil his promise to marry and murder a new bride every day, strangling her once the marriage has been consummated. The genders are reversed here, with little Alex (Winslow Fegley) in the Scheherazade role, and Natacha (Krysten Ritter) as a child-snatching witch in an apartment block who lures and then kills victims based on how “useful” they are to her…
The film opens with Alex, a Brooklynite who as the film opens is determined to destroy the titular ‘nightbooks’, a collection of notebooks in which he writes his own scary stories. But on his way to the boiler room, he’s lured into a young witch’s apartment, but before she can kill him he mentions he’s a talented writer, so she demands he tell her a new scary story every night in order to stay alive. And while being forced to think up new stories, Alex tries to escape with the help of another capture girl, Yazmin (Lidya Jewett).
The look and feel of the film is kitsch, self-consciously so. In tone and style, it’s a bit like Goosebumps (2015), though more deliberately old-fashioned and marketable as nostalgia for adults as well as modern kid’s entertainment. The costumes and furnishings are reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s family fantasy aesthetic, too, as Alex is kitted out like Macaulay Culkin in The Pagemaster (1994). The apartment building evokes the Gothic New York high-rise of Ghostbusters II (1989), right down to the perpetually dark-and-stormy night outside. The witch’s library, meanwhile, is one of those you tend to only see in the movies, with green-shaded reading lamps and rickety spiral staircases.
In keeping with the nostalgia, there are lots of references to ’80s pop culture in the film’s cold open, which are unlikely to be in the wheelhouse of Nightbooks‘ target audience of teens and pre-teens. Likewise, shots and moments throughout the film reference famous bits from horror cinema, like the fast-moving tracking shot through the woods from Evil Dead II (1987). This makes sense when you realise Sam Raimi is a producer, and one of the demons even has the bone snapping shamble of a Deadite. Meanwhile, a grainy presentation is used for the visualisation of Alex’s stories, reminiscent of 1970s grindhouse shockers.
Alex, by the way, is roughly 12-years-old (I’m basing that on how old his actor is, according to Wikipedia), yet is steeped in ’80s horror culture, with Lost Boys (1987) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) posters on his bedroom walls. This feels a bit indulgent of the filmmakers. Wouldn’t a kid Alex’s age, if he’s into horror, be more likely to have The Boxtrolls (2014) and Paranorman (2012) on their walls? Even if one assumes Nightbooks takes place in the ’80s, mum and dad are dropping the ball if they’re letting their kid watch a movie about an undead child abuser who eviscerates teens in their dreams.
Krysten Ritter’s performance as the witch is vampish, which is appropriate for the material. It has a whiff of Meryl Streep in Hocus Pocus (1993) about it, though a bit huskier and charged in a Grand High Witch sort of way. It feels mean-spirited to critique child acting, given that kids are too young to have made a fully informed and independent choice to act. Nonetheless, it’s an important part of a film like this. Winslow Fegley is good and clearly does his best, though he doesn’t always seem like a “real” kid. (As in one not reading from a script.) It is, I would argue, always the case with slightly “off” child acting that the fault lies with the filmmakers, not the actor.
It’s not a bad performance, just a somewhat stilted one, which could’ve been improved by better coaching from the director or whoever on set was deemed responsible for that side of the production. Lidya Jewett is a bit more natural, and both actors are engaged enough with the material to suggest they have profitable careers in entertainment ahead of them.
I’d have liked a bit more colour and personality in the scenery, which is borrowed from its predecessors and fairy tales without matching the vividness of either. The message at the heart of the story is also unoriginal, and arguably not all that relevant today. (Do kids in 2021 ostracise “nerds” like Alex? I’ve not been his age since the early 2000s, admittedly, but it seems like pop-culture obsessions are the norm rather than the exception these days.)
Given the relatively melancholic and menacing tone of the film, the third act’s revelation—the dark truth of why Alex felt the need to destroy his nightbooks–is much too anticlimactic. To a point where I found it amusing, though I’m probably just being a jerk. The effect for me was like if Harry Potter’s trauma turned out not to be murdered parents, but having once stubbed his toe on a dresser. Then again, the smallness of the secret fits with the small-scale production.
The soundtrack is the best thing about Nightbooks. In song choices it’s derivative but has some well-done covers, most memorably “Cry Little Sister” by CHVRCHES, which was originally used in The Lost Boys—a film referenced several times in Nightbooks. CHVRCHES gives it a soft, intimate, and ’90s tone, as opposed to its more bombastic, Depeche Mode-esque predecessor by Gerard McCann.
Nightbooks is a fun diversion for kids, with references to keep the young-at-heart watching too. It’s a very post-COVID film in that every frame seems like careful consideration was put into making it as modest and socially distanced as possible. The lack of extras may have just been a monetary choice, but the scaled back quality of this fantasy film comes across as very much of the lockdown period, especially when one considers it entered production in 2019. In years to come it may be used as an example of how film production changed post-COVID. It’s less likely to be remembered for its story and characters, though it’s a worthwhile digestive between meatier films and something that families can enjoy together.
USA | 2021 | 103 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: David Yarovesky.
writers: Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis (based on the book by J.A White).
starring: Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett & Krysten Ritter.