Writing scary stories was what Alex (Winslow Fegley) loved doing most. Until the day he inexplicably swore off ever writing again. All the more unfortunate given Alex is thereafter imprisoned inside a spooky house by Natacha (Krysten Ritter), a malevolent albeit glamorous child-abducting witch. She demands Alex tell her a new scary story every night. Or else face certain death. Together with Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), a fellow abductee turned servant, Alex searches desperately for a means to escape by uncovering Natacha's dark secret.
Nightbooks is a rarity in our overly sensitive and sanitized modern times: a spooky movie for children that goes out of its way to be genuinely creepy and unsettling. Adapted from a well-regarded horror fantasy children's book by J.A. White, this ostensibly family-friendly Netflix production has an atypically intense tone. Its scary set-pieces, pulled off with a flair by David Yarovesky, director of the outright nasty anti-Superman tale Brightburn (2019), that offset the otherwise cramped televisual aesthetic that pervades many a Netflix film, exhibit an undeniable Evil Dead influence. Complete with demon-cam roving through the haunted woods which should be no surprise given Evil Dead alumni Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert serve as co-producers.
Although based on a novel the plot unfolds as a string of videogame like situations instead of a traditional literary narrative. It presents puzzles and problems for clever and resourceful child heroes kids Alex and Yasmin to unravel and overcome, gradually building up courage and confidence. That said co-screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, who previously penned The Curse of La Llorona (2019) along with Y.A. romance Five Feet Apart (2019), do a fine job mining the genuine thematic depth at the heart of White’s novel. Being forced to tell Natacha scary stories also forces Alex to finally confront his own personal pain. The film’s message that the horror genre can provide a vital psychological catharsis, essentially reworking young people's innermost fears into forms easier to deal with, will likely resonate strongly with anyone ever faced with the question: why do you like to read/watch/ or maybe even write such 'sick' scary stuff? Cynics might scoff that it boils down to essentially the same old familiar family film mantra: be yourself. But such messages are not necessarily the worst thing to impart to an insecure young child.
Krysten Ritter vamps it up to delicious effect even if her innate adorability counteracts efforts to fashion Natacha into a truly scary villain. That said outstanding performances from young leads Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett make the viewer believe wholeheartedly they face mortal danger while cowering in fear from Natacha's witchy wrath. Meanwhile Yarovesky's taut direction ensures the film stays continuously suspenseful offset by moments of artistry such as presenting each of Alex's stories as charmingly stylized theatrical vignettes. Almost like a school theatre production of Kwaidan (1964). Things really kick into high gear with the candy-coloured nightmare third act which throws in direct allusions to Dario Argento's original Suspiria (1977) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). You don’t get that from your average kids' scary movie.