Adolescence is chockablock full of life-changing experiences in such a short period of time. Children get to wear many different emotions as they navigate the brutal terrain of friendship, othering, and then some. This allows them to learn more about themselves, but also learn which emotions are good, bad, and what to fear. One of the easiest ways to test the waters when it comes to these experiences is by diving deep into media via TV or film. And, for children, it is all the more essential to have age-appropriate horror to sink deep into as a playground for not only the genre, but to experience emotions and situations they might not have had to encounter yet. With all that said, NIGHTBOOKS is a perfect example of age-appropriate horror done right, creating a relatable tale about loneliness, survival, and the love of horror for both young and more mature viewers alike.
The film follows Alex (Winslow Fegley), a young boy who loves all things scary and, in his spare time, writes scary stories in his Nightbooks. However, after one final incident makes him reject all the things he loves, he runs away from home only to be lured into a concerning apartment just down below. Once lured into this deceptive trap, he is caught by an evil witch (Krysten Ritter) inside her magical apartment. She demands that he proves his usefulness to her. Upon learning he is a writer, she demands a story every night. A new take on Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights, viewers watch as Alex and Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), another young prisoner, learn how to survive the witch and also find a way to escape from the magical clutches of the apartment that mysteriously shakes and groans when awakened. With the help of Yasmin and the witch’s adorable (most would say creepy) cat Lenore, Alex will learn how to overcome his uncertainty and fear and learn to embrace what makes him unique and special via his writing and scary stories.
NIGHTBOOKS is not what one would call an adorable film for kids. While still child-friendly, with plenty of humor interwoven throughout the script, this film covers pretty significant subject matter that hits at an emotional core that all ages can relate to. These moments unveil themselves during emotionally heightened scenes, which gives the film weight. A coming-of-age tale in its own way, what could have been a film that easily leans too heavily into the silly easily finds itself standing on its own merits. And, to be quite frank, will inspire anyone to go out and hunt down J.A. White’s book of the same name. With the screenplay crafted by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis and the direction provided by David Yarovesky (Brightburn), the film’s success is easily acquired through the combined deft handling of the source material they’ve been given to work with from White.
There are a lot of little nuggets of horror goodness for fans interspersed throughout NIGHTBOOKS. Fangoria magazines, The Lost Boys playing in the background (with Cry Little Sister playing on and off in little bursts); these little winks are like little spoonfuls of candy to the modern horror fan. There is also what I find to be a throwback to the silent film form of horror storytelling we get to see when Alex starts to tell his nightly stories. The traditional set set-up of each story and how these particular moments are framed and edited lend itself to that silent film pre-talkie style. Perhaps, I might be getting the reference wrong, but that’s how I interpreted it. And, as to the more horror-based elements featured in the film, you might find yourself asking whether or not it might be too much for kids. However, these moments are still crafted with the PG rating in mind and provide a safe testing ground for whether or not older kids can stomach these particularly thrilling moments when they pop up on the screen.
Circling back to an earlier point made about direction, Yarovesky’s direction shines bright through the performances from his core cast featuring Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett, and Krysten Ritter. Angela Demo nails it in the casting decisions made for this film. Winslow Fegley’s performance, in particular, is a standout. He nails the emotional complexities of the lonely, misunderstood Alex. For horror fans everywhere, many of us will see ourselves reflected in Alex and, once we reach a pivotal monologue delivered by Fegley, I can’t imagine there being a dry eye in the house. The emotional buildup alone in that scene solidifies a strong future for him in this industry.
Lidya Jewett’s performance as Yasmin carries a different kind of weight, highlighting how the rejection of attachment ultimately harms more than heals. Both Fegley’s and Jewett’s chemistry are magnetic; their friendship resonating off the screen. Cleo and Trixie, who portray Lenore, are the bestest of cats and deserve all the extra treats for their performance. Krysten Ritter’s emotionally immature, psychopathic Natacha is a cotton candy, witchcore nightmare wrapped in childhood trauma. There’s a sinister edge to her performance that reminds the viewer to not trust her despite her more pleasant exterior. And, once all is revealed, viewers may still be left wondering whether or not much sympathy can be given considering the circumstances of her life’s actions.
One can’t really discuss NIGHTBOOKS without shining a spotlight on the below-the-line crafts so prominently displayed in the film. Knowing that the bulk of the sets and effects featured in the film were practically done makes the practical effects loving creature living in my heart coo with glee. Anastasia Masaro’s production designs shine bright, with the design of the apartment, plant nursery, library and more all standing out with a distinctive character. With Diana Magnus’s and Rocco Mateo’s art direction working in tandem with Peter P. Nicolakakos’s set decoration, it all comes together to create a vivid set that any viewer would want to play around in. Seriously, I may have a love affair with the wallpaper that we see in the apartment. And that library? Ugh! The dream! Autumn Steed’s costume designs help inform and shape the characters we see onscreen. While many will talk about Natacha’s clothing designs, I do think a special focus should be given to Yasmin’s clothes in the film, with her personality reflecting most clearly when she’s deep in the grips of her work.
The Visual Effects team did have their work cut out for them. While I admittedly am not as good at clocking all the VFX in film because a lot of it these days is super subtle, I’ll mostly focus on the creatures in NIGHTBOOKS. When Lenore decides to be a little sneaky sneakster or get into mischief, the work done is mostly natural, but maintains a certain unnaturalness that reminds that this is a kid’s film. Then there’ the dang slicer creatures that have no problem cutting a person…They are sinisterly designed enough that even I wouldn’t deign to go near them. This particular scene featuring those creatures also provides plenty of stunt work and practical goo splooshing on the actors which, if you’re into those practical moments of grossness, you’ll definitely enjoy. There’s so much good quality craftsmanship featured in NIGHTBOOKS that it would probably take me all day to recount how much love and care has been taken into each element. So, seriously, hat’s off to all of you!
Overall, NIGHTBOOKS is a fun and thoughtful kid-friendly fantasy-horror film. I know there are some who reject the notion of needing age-appropriate horror in our community, but without these little nuggets sprinkled about, how else are kiddos supposed to learn to enjoy terror and fear? I know for myself if Disney Channel hadn’t featured Under Wraps or Don’t Look Under The Bed, I most likely wouldn’t have gotten up the courage to venture into The Exorcist in middle school. From these types of films, the seed to love horror can be planted and – with proper nurturing – can sprout into something darkly beautiful. With the care taken into crafting the visual of this film combined with the strong performances from its core cast and the horror elements throughout, this is a must-see for both kids and adults alike.
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