Nightbrooks is noticeably less morbid than Brothers Grimm's Hansel and Gretel, but does not entirely hold back on the visuals, jump scares, and sound effects. The movie has a whopping runtime of 1 hour 43 minutes, and may seem a tad bit too long.
Winslow Fegley as Alex and Lidya Jewett as Yasmin. | Netflix/Christos Kalohoridis
Story: Alex (Winslow Fegley), a young boy obsessed with horror stories, is trapped in a wicked witch’s (Krysten Ritter) apartment. She has only one condition to keep him alive – Alex must prove himself useful and tell her a scary story every night.
Review: Creating a horror movie aimed specifically at tweens and younger children is a precarious task. The story has to be spooky enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, but not terrifying enough to keep them up through the night. However, Nightbooks, based on the children’s book of the same name by J.A. White, strikes a fine balance between the two.
The Netflix movie follows Alex (Winslow Fegley), a young writer with a passion for horror stories whose interests have not particularly made him popular among his peers. So he decides to discard the collection of stories he wrote — “nightbooks” as he calls them — in the incinerator of his apartment building’s basement. But there’s a hiccup in the plan — there has to be, it’s a horror story after all — when the elevator abruptly stops at a random floor, and he finds himself outside an apartment that lures him inside with the movie The Lost Boys playing on TV and a slice of pumpkin pie waiting to be devoured. Alex unquestioningly falls for the bait, and becomes Natacha the witch’s (Krysten Ritter) prisoner.
The only way he can stay alive in the witch's apartment is if he presents a scary story to her every night, a task rendered difficult because he had vowed to give up storytelling in order to fit in with his classmates. He’s not alone in the house, Natacha has another prisoner named Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), a smart but cynical girl, who has learned that it's best to never cross the witch's way. She's cold to Alex's friendliness, but eventually warms up to him when she realises that there is always strength in numbers. Yasmin helps Alex find creative inspiration by introducing him to the apartment’s vast library, a dream come true for every avid reader.
Fegley is impressive as Alex, more like a tiny adult than a pre-teen who is nifty with words, and has an extremely vivid imagination. He’s also resilient in the face of Natacha’s curmudgeonly attitude and critique of his stories, a virtue that even seasoned writers often lack. Jewett adeptly brings maturity into her character; after all, she has had to grow up before her time, and find ways to survive each day in the witch’s house.
Nightbooks takes inspiration from the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel, where the siblings were lured into a gingerbread house by a cannibalistic witch. Like many modern-day versions of fairy tales and even Disney movies, Nightbooks is another revisionist example. It’s noticeably less morbid than the original fairy tale but does not entirely hold back on the visuals, jump scares and sound effects. The movie has a whopping runtime of 1 hour 43 minutes, and may seem a tad bit too long as Alex and Yasmin find a way to emancipate themselves from Natacha’s clutches.
Ritter’s wicked witch is not as menacing; she's not the typical warty, old hag with a bulbous nose, but dons a punk-rock avatar, heavy make-up and bright blue hair. The costume design is impeccable, and will make you wish you could borrow a piece or two from the movie’s wardrobe.
Verdict: Nightbooks may strike horror in the malleable minds of younger children, so consider this a disclaimer. This is not a movie recommended for kids to watch alone, parental supervision is advised.