Kid-friendly scary movies that are frightful enough, but that won't cause nightmares (and headaches for parents) are hard to come by, and Netflix's Nightbooks manages to strike the ideal balance. The film is based on a popular children's book by J.A. White, and it features several genuinely terrifying moments, and a few off-putting CGI failures.
Alex Mosher (Winslow Fegley) is a horror story-obsessed Brooklyn pre-teen who decides to burn his collection of tales, which he calls his Nightbooks, after he faces ridicule from his peers. On the way down to the boiler room in his building, he stumbles upon an inviting situation in an apartment on another floor. His favorite movie, The Lost Boys, is playing on a TV and a slice of delectable-looking pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream is present for the taking.
'Nightbooks' delivers family-friendly scares that will entertain kid and adult viewers alike.
Premiere: September 15, 2021
Where to Watch: Netflix
Director: David Yarovesky
Cast: Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett, Krysten Ritter
Writers: Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (based on the novel by J.A. White)
1 hour and 43 minutes, PG-TV
Before Alex notes the foreboding creepy doll collection and the wall of masks, he collapses from the poison pie. The door to the apartment slams shut.
Enter a witch named Natacha, who is played by Krysten Ritter. The actress' signature Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 snark is back in full force for the role, which is as vibrant as her colorful combat boot collection. She commands every scene she's in — whether she's terrorizing the other characters with veiled threats or just spritzing her mysterious perfume while laying on the couch.
Natacha agrees not to kill Alex immediately on one condition: he must write her a new scary story each night. She insists on no happy endings, which ends up being much more than just a personal preference.
Throughout Nightbooks, Alex’s scary stories break up a plot that is otherwise about his captivity. These interludes likely worked better in the book edition than they do in the movie. Though Alex's narratives are fairly short and original, his characters and plots are underdeveloped and don't provide any long-lasting scares. Natacha's frequent criticisms over Alex's lack of witch-world knowledge lighten the mood, but they also take the audience out of the stories.
The storyteller isn't the only one in the Victorian-style apartment working as Natacha's servant. There's also a D.C. girl named Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), who was taken three years earlier, and who doesn't appreciate Alex's optimism.
The kid actors, Lidya Jewett and Winslow Fegley, carry most of the film on their own, as Krysten's Natacha leaves the apartment during the day. Though we know that Natacha is a scary figure (she is a serial kidnapper after all), she's gone so often that she doesn't seem to be much of an active threat to our protagonists as they scheme to escape.
Though Alex and Yasmin don't initially get along, as they differ on how to handle Natacha and life in captivity, the two soon become allies. Alex is a hopeful about getting out while Yasmin has become much more jaded as a result of her time as a hostage. The young actors are effective in portraying polar-opposite friends, whose disagreements and tender moments never veer toward overt cheesiness.
While the characters feel realistic, the same can't be said for the film's CGI creations. There's a hairless cat named Lenore, whose appearance is more in line with the film's fictional monsters than any actual living housecat. The Shredders, on the other hand, benefit because they are creations of a fantasy world, and they are successful at frightening the audience as well.
The other frights in Nightbooks come once Alex and Yasmin decide to make a break for it. They realize that diving into the unknown is often the scariest prospect imaginable — and that the Shredders aren't the only enemies they will face.
There is a significant twist as we approach the conclusion, which aims to tie up certain storylines in a neat bow. Instead, it ends up sparking other questions that never get answered. Viewers don't have much time to digest this twist before the characters (and the plot) are moving on. The film clocks in at just under an hour and 45 minutes, and the final act feels rushed.
Nightbooks is a unique addition to the children's horror genre. The tween characters are developed enough that the audience roots for their success. The performances from the three main stars elevate the film above the special effects mishaps and hurried denouement. The Netflix original will set the right mood for any Halloween celebration, and the scare-level means that just the candy will be keeping kids awake.
The movie is available to stream on Netflix now.