It’s rare that I start a film and then double-check the age rating in disbelief. Nightbooks on Netflix stars Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones) as Natacha, a witch who entraps children to be her own personal slaves. Children are only kept alive as long as they are of use which is lucky for 10-year-old scary story writer Alex (Winslow Fegley) as Natacha demands a fresh story to be read to her every evening on pain of death.
With young protagonists, magical witches, and a PG rating, my first thought was that tonally this would be on a par with something like Goosebumps, where classic horror tropes are laid rather lightly over child-centric stories. Not so with Nightbooks which exudes more of an Evil Dead vibe; I was thoroughly unsurprised to see Sam Raimi named as a producer in the end credits.
Leading with an emotionally intense start which is sustained for a good way into the first act, the opening scene crashes in with Alex destroying his bedroom. He rips down a multitude of horror movie posters and stuffs his collection of self-penned spooky tales into a backpack, escaping his arguing parents and fleeing to burn his work in the apartment building basement.
Yet the elevator stops at the wrong floor, where seemingly abandoned apartments beckon him in with TVs showing The Lost Boys and slices of pie just begging to be eaten…
Being kidnapped and held prisoner by malevolent forces is something that most movies would dress up with some light relief, but Nightbooks really pulls no punches and frequently feels like a bloody injury or gory plop away from becoming a higher age-rated movie. This is a proper gateway horror film for kids with little to no truck in sugar coating things. Whether cowering under Natacha’s unpredictable wrath in a way laden with child abuse subtext or scrabbling to avoid nasty spider like creatures with razor sharp legs, it is fear that plays the primary role rather than action.
A lot rests on the shoulders of the young cast which includes the initially hostile Yazmin (Lidya Jewett) as a similarly kidnapped prisoner to Natacha. The terror she and Alex feel in the face of Natacha’s anger is edge of the seat stuff. Yazmin’s resignation and Alex’s determination to explore the magically massive apartment and find an escape route is tensely exciting.
The set dressing is to a high standard as this building can not only grow to include anything Natacha wants but can also magically move to anywhere in the world, which only adds to the desperation of separation Alex and Yazmin feel from their families.
Nightbooks has a limited cast (and let's not forget Lenore, Natacha’s spying cat that can turn invisible at will) but does them all justice by allowing time to reveal their motivations. Quite why Alex was tearfully prepared to destroy all his stories at the beginning is a question Natacha keeps demanding of him and he keeps dodging, building up to a third act payoff. Similarly, the movie throws great resources at the art direction, with Alex’s story readings beautifully (or should that be ‘disgustingly’) animated in deep reds and classic horror presentation.
What comes first, the costume or the performance? Silver-blue haired Krysten Ritter swooshing into the room in gorgeous glitter makeup and OTT wardrobe is the modern fashion alt witch nightmare. Ritter delivers a performance both intoxicating and terrifying. She slinks around, periodically spraying a sickly pink perfume, yet flies into a rage at the merest provocation. It’s a commanding central performance made all the more powerful by her being off-screen for decent chunks of the movie.
Nightbooks is one of those movies that seems to blink into existence seemingly from another realm. It apes literary history, with a pinch of classic nasty folk tales and a core plot borrowed from 1,001 Arabian Nights, but spins them around in a new and surprising way.
It’s a simple story, tightly told and delivered with a flourish. The movie works well as a horror for adults, never mind as a gateway for children or young teens. It pushes the fear factor right up to the limit of a PG rating (little light relief and constant threat) but for those that can cling on and fight back, Nightbooks promises that all witches can be melted.
Words by Mike Record