Everything about the concept of Nightbooks makes you want to like it. As a rare family-friendly addition to the horror genre, this film has the potential to bridge the gap between age demographics and offer the weak-hearted a kinder alternative to the gory, psychological horror that plagues this spooky season.
The elaborate sets are haunting and expansive, giving free rein to an assortment of eerie Victorian-era rooms, whimsical plant terrariums, and bone-chilling CGI creatures. Throw in Krysten Ritter as the manic villain, a clutch actress who can turn any concept into something of substance, and there’s a potential for real greatness here.
Unfortunately, Nightbooks is not exactly great. It’s insufferable how hard this film fights to be unlikeable when it has every chance to be enjoyable.
The film lacks any valuable setup, throwing viewers immediately into the thick of the plot.
In some ways, this sequestered approach could set Nightbooks apart from films like Goosebumps and The House with a Clock in Its Walls for its scenery-chewing style and head-first pacing. It would play true to the horror genre in ways that are still age-appropriate. Instead, the choice leaves the world it inhabits, and our protagonist terribly underdeveloped.
Alex never becomes the tangible, three-dimensional hero viewers can root for. His actions are fueled by a very basic backstory we are none the wiser to until the film’s showdown. The story could have discreetly swapped him out for another oddball child at any point, and it wouldn’t change the trajectory of the plot.
The stinted dialogue leaves little to the imagination, stripping this Halloween spectacle of any suspense. Much of the character development isn’t development as much as it is reactionary storytelling. A large chunk of Alex and Yasmin’s time together, and that consequential bond, is devoted to them reacting to Natacha’s outbursts rather than digging deeper into their collective trauma. They have moments of clarity where it looks like the two children might become more than plot devices, that their dialogue might resemble something tweens might say.
Alas, their conversations strike the same inconsistent and erratic balance of the film.
Oddly, Nightbooks insists on changing its direction and pacing at every turn, creating a disjointed experience for viewers eager to immerse themselves in this wicked world. It’s even odder to see that erraticness all but evaporate in the face of promising conflict.
This dark fantasy can be boiled down to the same tired routine. Alex refuses to write a scary story, only to write one off-screen. He then reads this story (which may or may not have a title card and elaborate reenactments, depending on the mood) to the evil witch. Who finds some reason to threaten Alex and Yasmin’s lives violently before sparing them from any punishment — because surprise, there’s still a ton of run time left.
This film feels less like a scary story and more like a repeat of the same tired chapter as we witness the living room scene play out time again, the same outcome becoming inevitably irritating. All its issues aside, this is a spooky tale geared towards a younger audience, and when taken at face value, the light-horror flick will enchant those that can admire its chaotic pacing and over-the-top scare tactics.
Its thrills may be cheap, but even the most unwilling participants will find themselves having a blast in the presence of Ritter’s wicked witch.
Natacha is the perfect villain to helm this haunting adaptation because Ritter knows how to embody her diabolical vanity with a balance of zany elegance. Her elaborate costumes are some of this film’s best surprises as she parades around in neon pink boots and loud jewelry, playing her part to perfection. As the spooky gatekeeping girl boss she is, Natacha deserves a venue that compliments her horrifying stature, and this magical moving apartment is just the right setting.
Each room feels like its own intricate story, unique to the objects and haunting decore inhabiting its space. I cannot stress how imperative a spooky atmosphere and killer soundtrack is to fluffier horror stories like this and the apartment’s chilling energy is visually intoxicating. It actively works against the witch’s wishes, and the clash between punk rock ballads and outdated decore suggests this isn’t entirely her world to inhabit.
The set adds to what little mystery this reactive storytelling wields and helps Natacha acquire a depth worthy of her delightful antagonist. Regrettably, we do not get to explore more of the peculiar rooms hidden within its walls. To say a place is capable of holding everything and confine viewers to the same three rooms is an underwhelming use of such a fascinating story tool.
Nightbooks is a step in the right direction for Netflix as the streaming service begins developing more middle-grade novels into successful franchises. It’s a story capable enough to be used as a starter pack for parents who want to introduce their children to the horror genre and chaotic enough to dazzle on a stormy night in captivity.
However, as long as these juvenile adaptations are developed through inferior lenses, they will never be fully worthy of their audience. Younger audiences deserve strong storytelling, just as the young actors of Nightbooks deserve better material.
One has to ponder why weaker middle-grade projects like this are being considered for sequels when the streaming giant is already on the edge of great with its (criminally unrenewed) spooky tween series, Julie and The Phantoms. As far as family-friendly features go, there are better and wittier scares to amuse yourself with this Halloween season. Unfortunately, none of them have Ritter killing it in platform heels and platinum blue wigs, so you have that to consider.