We've all felt like writer's block will kill us, but in the case of Alex? It actually might.
If you participated in the Summer Fiction Series, you should be able to empathise with the plight of Alex: having been kidnapped by a witch, Alex will only be allowed to live as long as he tells the witch a scary story every night. It's Goosebumps meets One Thousand and One Nights. Or it's a slightly more intense version of the SFS without any cash prizes.
Alex might not be old enough to shave, but he's about to learn a lot about deadlines.
Alex wants to escape from the witch's supernatural apartment, but he'll need to survive long enough to figure out how, and the only way to survive is to keep writing. But Alex has recently decided to stop writing his nightbooks, and to make matters worse he will have to read his stories aloud to his harshest critic, a literal witch who will happily kill him if she's dissatisfied with his creative output. There must be a story every night, and the must be no happy endings, and if the witch ever decides that she's done with Alex? She'll close the book on him forever.
Nightbooks occupies a bit of an odd space generically, because it is both a horror movie and a kids' movie. Obviously, this ground has been tread before by Goosebumps, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and the like. However, it's worth noting that this isn't purely a horror-lite flick. As far as horror goes, this is the real deal.
Director David Yarovesky's previous film, Brightburn, re-imagined the Superman story as a horror tale. Personally, the movie didn't work for me. (It felt like Brightburn asked the question, "What would it be like if Superman was evil?" and answered, "He would kill people, I guess?" I wanted more from the premise, but Brightburn settled as a slasher with superpowers) But it was undeniably a brutal, violent horror movie that earned its R-rating a dozen times over.
Despite its PG rating, Nightbooks feels like a product of the same mind as a Brightburn. While the film is light on blood and gore, Nightbooks is a horror movie from the very first scene. There are shadowy monsters, mind-controlled kidnappings, and children who meet terrible fates if they disappoint the supernatural evil. And yet, it's also a kid's movie. It's regularly silly, and some of the gross-out sequences wouldn't feel out of place in a Nickelodeon television show.
So how do these two elements mesh together?
That's probably best embodied in the character of the witch, Natacha, played by Krysten Ritter. Anyone who has followed Ritter's career for any amount of time won't be surprised to learn that she has no trouble playing the ultimate mean-girl. Sometimes her scenes are ridiculous (She almost kills Alex before discovering that he writes nightbooks for fun), and sometimes her scenes are frightening, but Ritter always brings the intensity Nightbooks needed from its villain.
And then there's her costuming. Sometimes they dress Natacha in bright pinks, sometimes in blacks, but one thing is abundantly clear: the costume designer took the idea for Ritter's character and ran with it. It pulls even fewer punches than Ritter's performance, and honestly, it just might be worth the price of admission all on its own.
So far so good. Does it stay that way?
Unfortunately, it's a mixed bag whenever Ritter leaves the screen. While we've definitely seen worse performances from child actors in the past, neither of the children have enough charisma in their performances to match Ritter's malevolent witch. She might be the villain, but trust me, she's also the film's best selling point.
And then there are the little micro horror stories that Alex tells. Nightbooks tells these sequences with such heavily-stylized visuals that it's hard to distinguish animation from human performances. They're striking, but they don't feel like they're fully utilised. The nightbooks are introduced with title-cards and everything, but then they feel strangely detached from Alex's story. Considering the emphasis they're given, you could be forgiven for expecting them to feel like the various stories from A Monster Calls, but early on in the film the movie itself skips past a whole bunch of them, as if admitting that the movie doesn't really know what to do with them.
These pieces combine in a movie that never feels like it quite hits its stride. Some aspects of the movie are so strong that it seems like the movie is on the cusp of greatness, but then there are also extended sequences where you could be forgiven for checking your phone. Sometimes the movie is creepy and atmospheric, and at other times it looks like a cross between a Laser Tag arena and a Spirit Halloween. Compared to something like the Fear Street Trilogy, and how those movies managed to bring a whole smattering of genre tropes together in cohesive product, Nightbooks often feels like a bit too much wasted potential.
Still, with October right around the corner, and 31 spooky nights to fill, if you're looking for some fluffy horror? Nightbooks will probably distract you just fine for the duration of its runtime. You might not be engrossed, but you'll regularly be entertained. If you decide not to bother watching it, at least do yourself a favour and check out Krysten Ritter's costumes in the movie. They're great, and Krysten Ritter should star in every movie from now on.
"Nightbooks" is available via Netflix.