Netflix has fleetingly tackled nearly every holiday in one way or another (both excellent Christmas Chronicles movies from legendary director Christopher Columbus spring to mind instantly), and now with Nightbooks, the streamer sets its sights on Halloween! From Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures, Nightbooks is a twisted family film with horror sensibilities. Love for the genre is apparent in every frame, from the second we get a glimpse into the bedroom of young Alex (Winslow Fegley). His obsession with The Lost Boys is more than just a poster he has hanging up in his room—it is actually the way the sadistic witch, Natacha (Krysten Ritter), lures him into her apartment!
Alex is not having the best day—for starters, not a single person shows up to the epic Halloween party he had planned, unless you count his parents. He overhears them talking about his horror obsession being out of hand, and that it would be easier for him if he were “more normal,” as if that is a good thing. This just so happens to be the final straw: Alex vows to never write another scary story ever again. Ironically, this very talent may be his only hope. Alex runs away from home, but does not even make it outside of his apartment building. The intoxicating glow of a vintage TV-set playing The Lost Boys (and a cool slice of pumpkin pie!) lures Alex into apartment 4E…
Once in this twisted apartment, Alex essentially becomes trapped there permanently with no escape. He tries to get out through the fire escape, but it is just a portal back inside. A “busy witch” named Natacha appears to Alex. The apartment lures children in, and she has a closet seemingly full of their clothes. Pretty dark, huh? She commands Alex to tell her something special about him, lest she kill him right now and be done with it. His saving grace is that he writes scary stories. Natacha feeds off scary stories (she has a twisty labyrinth of a library inside her ever-changing magical apartment), so now Alex must become her permanent storyteller if he has any hopes of making it out of her apartment alive…
As a kid who wrote scary stories for his classmates at school, I could relate to Netflix’s horror fantasy Nightbooks on another level than most. Alex is an outsider obsessed with horror, reading Fangoria magazine, and hanging up movie posters in his bedroom—the epitome of a young Josh. Nightbooks molds Alex into a central character in which any kid will find a quality they can relate with. As the film itself reiterates time and time again, “every good story has some truth in it.” The addition of the apartment’s only other child, Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), is a perfect foil to Alex and adds a layer of friendship and teamwork to the mix. Throw in some seriously gnarly stuff, like bursts of purple blood and a surprising twist on a modern fairy tale, and Nightbooks has all the makings of a modern family classic.
Gateway horror has been cranked out for generations, with everything from 1984’s Gremlins, to 1985’s Return to Oz, to 1993’s Hocus Pocus, delivering on some serious nightmare fuel. It can help to form a particular love towards the genre itself as one gets older and fluctuates into mature content. I think Nightbooks is the perfect modern equivalent of gateway horror. Director David Yarovesky’s film is brimming with horror callbacks and loving nods that will leave any genre fan age 10-100 craving more. An Evil Dead deadite-style POV for a scary unicorn wears Sam Raimi’s producer credit like a glove and instantly brought a smile to my face. Furthermore, this is the first time since Cabin in the Woods that I have seen an evil unicorn! Fun nods like this crank up the re-watchability factor immensely—always a plus in my book.
Of course, none of this would work if the witch played by Krysten Ritter was not a complete blast. Ritter knows exactly what type of performance she is giving here. On the script page, Natacha sprays herself with some type of intoxicating cologne in a skull-shaped perfume bottle, and Ritter brings this to life with devoted aplomb. She relishes every line of dialogue. Her casting was seriously inspired, since she is also able to accomplish the perfect mix of scary and campy. Anne Hathaway’s performance in last year’s The Witches remake came to mind; both of these takes on modern witches are performed with a committal to embrace campy ridiculousness, while maintaining an imposing aura of intimidation.
I fell in love with nearly everything about Nightbooks as it progressed. It remains another clear home-run for streamer Netflix. Though their films remain varied thanks to the sheer breadth of their output, when they strike the right cords, Netflix soars. Nightbooks is one of the best family films of the year, full stop. If it can get even one or two kids interested in the wild world of the horror genre, I will consider it a success story. Evoking the childlike whimsy of The Spiderwick Chronicles and the creeping horrors of Monster House, the script from Tobias Iaconis and Mikki Daughtry is buoyed by friendship and positivity. An ending that seems to hint at a potential sequel simply fits in the framework of a film that does not allow happy endings to exist. No matter what the future may hold, Nightbooks will continue to captivate and charm this viewer for years to come.
Nightbooks open its story to Netflix on Wednesday, September 15th.