Directed by David Yarovesky and based on a screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, adapted from J.A. White’s eponymous horror-fantasy book for children. Netflix’s Nightbooks is very quick to seek approval. The first port of call is shoving Sam Raimi as their producer into the audience’s face as if hoping to confirm their horror status from the off. Sure, Raimi will long be remembered by horror aficionados and cinephiles for The Evil Dead, but one cannot say the same for Nightbooks as it falls short of being much more than children’s film.
With a brilliant ensemble cast comprising Jessica Jones, AKA Krysten Ritter as the scary witch, Winslow Fegley as the young, bespectacled avid horror fan Alex Mosher and Lidya Jewett as the experienced Yasmine, the film is a perfect watch for children. Still, it is full of scary scenes that reek of magic and jump scares.
The premise is pretty simple. Just like many of us, Alex is a horror film addict and, as a fanboy, has posters of films like Nightmare on Elm Street and the Lost Boys adorning his room. His friends think he is a freak. Outcast, the boy decides to burn his favourite horror anthology book Nightbooks when he gets lured into an apartment straight into the evil clutches of a witch named Natacha.
Unlike our quintessential impression of witches, Natacha has an obnoxious laugh but is extremely stylish, jazzy and the kind of villain we all aspire to be. Natacha hides a sad past behind her scary facade of fashionable attire, snazzy nails and coloured hair. Alex’s life will be spared if he manages to keep her entertained with new horror stories every day.
As such, he is given access to the huge library and meets another teen named Yasmine, who is trapped as well. Through Yasmine, Alex pieces together information about Natacha while actively trying to avoid being eavesdropped on by her invisible cat. They are imprisoned within the lonely NYC apartment that is a being of its own as it travels through various locations and multitudes. Jumanji on crack? You bet!
The film is enjoyable for children. But for adults, it is nothing new. Yes, it does have an intriguing take on loyalty and friendships and is nostalgic, compelling the audience to reminisce about the times when we were (or are) obsessed with all things supernatural. The diabolical creatures (especially the scary unicorn), the secret stowaways, the child figurines, and the ambiguous ending indulge our fantasy. Alex’s horror-loving self, ironically, finds solace in Ritter when he is ignored by the people who should actually care for him.
The elements of horror and macabre somehow make it feel like a Tim Burton flick that lacks the filmmaker’s jazz and grandeur. Ritter tries hard to be the scary, intimidating witch, and it becomes really difficult to dissociate her from the image of the psychologically conflicted Jessica Jones.
While watching the film, one might think of the Jack Black-starring Goosebumps that tried to bring together all of R.L. Stine’s books that had ample comedy yet managed to keep it pieced together even in the end. Nightbooks plays into the fantasy of getting lost in an otherworldly place. It is a far-fetched twist on the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel, yet fails to live up to the expectation.
For all the imaginative Alex’s out there who would love to let go of reality and indulge in their wildest, most creative and indulgent fantasies, this film is a perfect Friday night watch, just not if you’re over the age of 12!