Nightbooks: Actually Scary Children’s Horror
Nightbooks Takes A Old Tale And Gives It New Life
Nightbooks has a killer premise. It’s a modernized take on the Hansel and Gretel story that retains its disturbing and nightmarish aspects. It once again highlights how you can do stories for younger audiences that still maintain fear.
However, the story does misstep a lot. Nightbooks meanders and is let down by its plot necessities. I’ve almost no doubt the original book—though I have not read it—has a more logical throughline.
This Plot Is A Little Chaotic On Any Reexamination
It’s not noticeable at first, however. The beginning has an efficient, fast-paced plot kick-off. Within minutes, and with minimal (if ham-handed) dialog, we plunge our main into that incredible premise: An evil, almost Lovecraftian apartment that steals children and a witch inside who demands a scary story every night or will kill (they use the word “kill”—which is refreshing) our young horror writer—who just renounced writing horror. There’s an element of desperate survival and genuine stakes.
It also hits home in an interesting way. If you didn’t know from our Friday Fiction section, I write horror. I wrote horror when I was that character’s age. And though I’m not usually a fan of having writers as main characters—it seems too easy—I appreciate the genuine love for the genre and its creators. Horror is literally what keeps our protagonist alive and is acknowledged as something worthwhile and powerful.
Nightbooks Earnestly Celebrates The Horror Genre
It also helps that the few stories we get, while short and clearly for a young audience, are a lot of fun. They have the same energy as Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark (the book series). The two full-on anthology-style short films we get for them were highlights, both visually and by sheer uniqueness. I would’ve accepted a slightly longer movie if only to feature more little horror scenes.
Anything connected to stories (both backstories and fictional ones) is also where we get the best acting. Alex (played by Winslow Fegley) has many fun scenes playing in this space. He channels a pitch-perfect “writers-blocked author with a deadline” and has excellent comedic back-and-forth with Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter) whenever he reads. Conversely, Yasmin (played by Lidya Jewett) carries some of the darker moments. She gets across the lethality and tragedy of the situation and the quiet desperation and emotional walls of someone who watched a lot of kids meet terrible fates.
The Two Child Actors Easily Carry The Whole Film
But I said Nightbooks misstepped, and I meant it. We get a terrible and unnecessary poop joke. The main character conveniently mutters plot details aloud. And there are scenes of comedy and whimsey that are tonal whiplash. But perhaps the worst of it is that the solutions to a lot of plot problems feel contrived. I like the frantic searches for books in the library and the subplot about critical nit-picking that has a strong resolution, but it’s still slightly rushed. Script necessities took over the natural plot progression. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened as it did, but that it should’ve taken much longer. Again, the book almost assuredly handled it more logically, unrestrained by the runtime.
But the movie redeems itself. And by that, I mean it gets scary. We get a hint earlier that Nightbooks can go intense with a scene involving little monsters, but it ramps up into sheer horror, continuous and potent. I won’t spoil it (even visually), but multiple late-game twists add layers and layers of disturbing implications. The set design becomes dramatically more threatening and morbid, and we see where the effects budget must’ve gone.
Nightbooks Gets So Much More Creepy As It Goes
This is all to say that Nightbooks surprised me. I was more than willing early into its runtime (especially during the poop scene) to write it off as another The House with a Clock in Its Walls. A movie that sacrifices its own merits on the altar of kids-movie homogeneity. But it proved me wrong. It’s by no means perfect, and I’m sure there are even more flaws in it than I’ve yet to notice, but the core conceit is good enough for a whole series. It’s got a dense enough story to remain engaging for older viewers and respects its younger ones to handle actual horror. If you’re looking for something light to start the Halloween season, you could do much worse than Nightbooks.
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