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Allen Adams Allen Adams
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edge staff writer


‘Nightbooks’ offers kid-friendly scares

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I’ve always been a fan of movies aimed at kids. I loved them when I was young, sure, but even as I’ve grown older, I’ve maintained an affection for them. Granted, there’s a LOT of variance with regard to quality (and a bad movie is a bad movie, no matter its target audience), but unless they’re REALLY bad, I usually find something engaging about them.

Still, one could argue that kid-oriented cinema has moved in the direction of more safe offerings in recent years. Looking back at the live-action children’s fare of my youth, I see a degree of intensity that is largely lacking today. Now, that isn’t to say all those movies were good – there were plenty of clunkers back then as well – but they seemed a bit more willing to push the audience.

“Nightbooks,” the new Netflix film, is a bit of a throwback in that way. Adapted from J.A. White’s YA novel of the same name and directed by David Yarovesky, it’s the story of a boy who is captured by a witch and forced to tell her scary stories each night or else be killed. The “Hansel & Gretel” parallels are overt, and there’s more than a little Scheherazade thrown into the mix. It’s definitely on the darker side for a kids’ movie, for sure. And when you throw in the fact that horror legend Sam Raimi is a producer, well … you know you’re in for something different.

Different … and pretty good.

Alex Mosher (Winslow Fegley) is a boy living in Brooklyn. He is obsessed with the macabre, constantly writing down scary stories that spring from his imagination. However, that obsession isn’t one that his peers really understand, leaving him as a bit of an outcast. One night, after an unfortunately unattended birthday party, he decides that he’s done being the oddball and leaves the apartment with the intent of burning all of his stories, contained in notebooks he calls his “nightbooks.” Along the way, he gets distracted by an apartment with its door ajar. Inside, a television is playing one of his favorite movies – “The Lost Boys” – and he is drawn in to watch.

It’s a trap.

Alex wakes up in the company of Natacha (Krysten Ritter), a witch who uses this magical apartment to lure in children … and only the kids who prove useful to her are allowed to survive. When she learns of Alex’s prolific writing, she demands that he read her a new scary story each night or else face the consequences. He then meets Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), a fellow prisoner who has stayed alive by becoming a sort of live-in housekeeper/maintenance person for Natacha. It is Yasmin who shows him Natacha’s massive library, packed with the thousands upon thousands of scary stories that she’s already heard.

Having decided to give up his scary story habit, Alex finds it difficult to write, though he won’t share the truth of it with anyone. He’s able to just barely satisfy Natacha with what he’s got, but every subsequent night proves a little more difficult. It’s only a matter of time before the stories run out.

And so, thanks to the encouragement of a diary of sorts recorded long ago in the margins of some of the library’s books, Alex and Yasmin decide to try and plot an escape. They’re left to overcome the many obstacles – both magical and mundane – in their path, but when the deeper truth behind the nature of their capture begins to unspool, their already-slim chance looks impossible.

“Nightbooks” reminded me very much of some of the perhaps-a-bit-too-intense kid-aimed movies I watched in my youth. Honestly, it’s reminiscent of the more straightforward scares we got in many children’s films during that stretch in the 1980s when the whole G/PG/PG-13 ratings breakdown was still in flux. Ultimately, it’s age-appropriate, but happy to push that envelope just a little bit, resulting in a pretty solid horror-fantasy.

Yarovesky’s last feature was 2019’s underrated evil superhero coming of age film “Brightburn,” so he’s already shown a propensity for kid-led darkness. This is a whole different animal, of course – this movie is actually FOR kids – but the underlying ethos is similar. The director proves more than willing to go for stark and scary imagery, embracing the over-the-top opportunities presented by this sort of magic-driven setting.

I’m also a fan of the device used to “illustrate” Alex’s storytelling, a nice bit of separation featuring title cards and deliberately low-fi and goofy scenes of the tales playing out. It’s a lovely touch that both integrates and separates those moments.

(By the way, I can hear you asking, “Hey Allen – since Sam Raimi is involved, might there be an ‘Evil Dead’-style tracking shot in this movie?” Good question. And you know … there just might.)

Among the more impressive aspects of “Nightbooks” is the work done by the young leads. Fegley is awfully young to be asked to bear the narrative load of a movie, yet he proves quite capable. He will feel very familiar to anyone who has been dubbed “the weird kid” and carries himself with a quirky charm. Jewett somehow manages to convey world-weariness despite her young age; she’s a great foil for Fegley’s oddball energy. The two of them are tasked with carrying lengthy swathes of the film, yet they manage just fine.

Oh, and lest we forget, Krysten Ritter is going for it in a way that is just delightful to watch. With a movie like this one, the more outsized the villain, the better – and Ritter goes BIG, clearly delighting in every moment of scenery chewing. She’s having so much fun that you can’t help also having fun yourself.

“Nightbooks” is a reminder that kids’ movies don’t have to be less-than. It’s got its share of scares, but also plenty of heart. It looks good and features some fine performances. Whether you’re a kid or just a kid at heart, there’s some fun to be had here.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 20 September 2021 10:48


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