Movies

Nightbooks

Netflix’s Nightbooks Review- Is This Horror Movie Too Scary For Kids?

The latest spooky season Netflix movie to release as part of its Netflix and Chills addition is the page-to-screen adaptation of J.A. White’s Nightbooks. The beloved children’s story is a reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, where little ones find themselves trapped in a nightmare and forced to spin yarns for their lives. The book deals with issues of bullying, child abuse, and supernatural monsters. It’s a fantasy/horror hybrid perfectly suited to act as an entry point for curious little minds. Netflix marketed its adaptation to kids, but is it too scary for the intended audience?

White’s book works because on paper, where the mind can run free, younger audiences can imagine what they can endure. Meaning, if their tolerance for some of the scarier bits is low, the monsters are more glitter growls and less terrifying hag. Unfortunately, that isn’t possible when the monsters are visual. When brought to life, the viewer sees what David Yarovesky intended and not what they can handle. To that end, although Krysten Ritter(Natacha) is a scary stylish ’80s dream, how she behaves and the even bigger Bad that comes after the kids later is pure nightmare fuel. However, it is a gorgeous, highly entertaining wild ride for adults or kids with a stiff spine.

Our protagonist, the bespectacled and adorable Alex(Winslow Fegley), is almost immediately endangered. Overcome emotionally because of an event that lies at the heart of Nightbook’s mystery; he finds himself imprisoned in the beautiful apartment of evil witch Natacha, the perfectly cast Ritter. Ritter instills Natacha with dynamic chaos, which is both terrifying even to an adult and hideously unsettling. Alex convinces her to let him write stories for her each night in exchange for his life. Naturally, his stories must be on time and scary. No happy endings ever!

Luckily for Alex, he finds a partner in crime in clever Yasmin(Lidya Jewett). Yasmin’s penchant for science saved her life. She tends all of Natacha’s plants. Additionally, she does any other chore the witchy woman wants around her magical apartment that can be anywhere and provide anything. Yasmin has been held prisoner longer than Alex and knows more but is also more damaged by her experience. Although it provides everything she could ever want, Natacha’s apartment does seem like as much a forced hideaway for Natacha as a prison for the kids. But, as we later find out, there is a reason for that.

Classic literature, namely Hansel and Gretal and 1001 Arabian Nights, provides the narrative structure while allowing a unique story. Partly that is due to the incredible costuming and set design. The more fantastical elements of Nightbooks come from these elements. In these spaces, the film can read more like the dark fairy tale it is, instead of a full-blown horror movie. Leaning hard into Haute Couture instead of Haute Tension is a smart move and one that keeps things from becoming too much for younger viewers. Although Natacha’s outbursts are hair-raising, it’s hard to get too freaked when she leaves a wake of shimmery dust everywhere she goes.

A Scheherazade for the pint-sized crew, Alex is a hero all kids will be drawn to. Alex may be captive and scared, but he is smart and resilient. Although there are undoubtedly scary elements, Nightbooks succeeds in much the same way as the classics that inform it. Yes, children are put in dangerous situations, but even though Natacha doesn’t want stories that end in happiness, she isn’t the storyteller. Alex and Yasmin have some agency and use it to save themselves. The movie is scarier than you would expect from a children’s horror movie. Similar to the illustrations in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, they are unexpected jolts that fill you with dread and nervous laughter.

Lastly, there is the persnickety, hairless cat Lenore who can become invisible at will and is the best-rendered animal companion I have seen in years. Lenore isn’t just a furless sidekick. She is a fully realized character with a complete character arc that is as unexpected as it is delightful. Nightbooks unravels each character’s secrets as the story unfolds. It is more interested in what has brought each person to this place than introducing an entire gang of kid heroes. Everyone has a past, even kids, and their personal history influences the narrative. The small cast size allows for a more personal nature to the story. We as an audience can connect to Alex and Yasmin relate to them. Ultimately, cheer for them.

Nightbooks
NIGHTBOOKS. WINSLOW FEGLEY as ALEX, LIDYA JEWETT as YASMIN in NIGHTBOOKS. Cr. CHRISTOS KALOHORIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021

Jewett and Fegley are adorably precocious and just the right mix of vulnerable and capable. Kids will relate to their plight while applauding their ingenuity. Ritter’s Natacha is remarkable as much for her perfectly styled looks as her behavior. She is a modern witch who wants to look good while doing bad. Natacha can switch from coy and flippant one moment to angry and vicious the next.

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Ritter commands every scene with her larger-than-life performance. Natacha doesn’t just rule her proverbial roost; she steals the very air she breathes, or at least it feels that way. Ritter’s performance alone is worth watching Nightbooks for. Her unpredictable outbursts and flawless looks are a highlight. Her choices convey a lot about who she is as a witch and who she once was. There is a reason she is all glitter-bombed bravado with an evil unicorn guard. That reveal later is as sad as it is horrifying. When her immaculately coifed persona is the scariest thing on-screen sharing space with eye-clawing spider fiends, Serpent and the Rainbow candy drugs, and snarling beasts, you know she’s doing something special.

Is Nightbooks appropriate for the kid crowd it is marketed to? I would argue yes. The world is a scary place sometimes. Entertainment like this allows an outlet for that horror without overwhelming the viewer. While I wouldn’t let my little one watch it alone, I would certainly snuggle up with a bowl of popcorn and a well-lit room. It’s a fun watch for adults too. Tweens and older will have no trouble with the themes and will likely find Natacha as fascinating as they do terrifying. The younger set will be scared but not ruined by the experience. At the end of the day, Alex and Yasmin make their own story. One with a happy ending.