With Halloween season fast approaching (in the United States at least), Netflix has begun releasing it’s horror line ups and properties to entice audiences. Among the various titles being released, many of which will be mentioned and discussed later on this site and which you should definitely check out, is Nightbooks, a film starring Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett, and Krysten Ritter based on the 2018 children’s horror novel of the same name written by J. A. White. In case, it wasn’t apparent at this point, SPOILERS to follow, so only continue if you are okay with that. We good? Good.
Nightbooks is simultaneously a modern retelling and continuation of the classic “Hansel and Gretel” fairytale, and it is a purposeful duality that actually pays off. There is a witch, a pair of downtrodden lost children, a magic house, and, eventually, a fiery showdown. However, Nightbooks deviates in its intention and message from the original. Whereas, “Hansel and Gretel” was a cautionary tale warning children of the dangers of strangers, wandering off from set paths, and the cruelty of adults and nature, Nightbooks, while having similar elements, focuses more on the power and necessity of story telling/construction, remaining true and resolute, and, as many modern children’s media, the strength found in friends and unity.
The story centers around Alex (played by Winslow Fegley), a young, self proclaimed “weirdo” who unironically loves horror to the confusion and chagrin of his peers and parents. (Though, seriously, why? Horror is freaking awesome). Alex’s love of scary stuff is seen in having a horror themed birthday bash and in his constant writing of scary stories which he collects in his aptly named “Nightbooks.” This fascination with the spooky ostracizes him from everyone at his school, eventually leading to the rejection of his singular friend and utter absence of presence at his aforementioned birthday party. His parents, oddly, offer no support for this and actually seem to agree with the “weirdo” assessment offered by Alex’s classmates. Perturbed and ashamed of his interests, personality, and difference, Alex gathers his “Nightbooks” with the intent to destroy all his stories and vows never to write another scary story, a vain attempt to try to change to better fit in with the expectation of his, so called, friends and family.
Once out of the apartment, Alex is enthralled to a neighboring apartment on the way to the apartment complex furnace by the smell and promise of his favorite treats. This was one of the smaller changes to the classic story as it’s not candy that lures in the children; instead, it is the favorite treat of each individual child that beckons them to the witch’s door. I particularly liked the story behind Yasmin’s favorite food as it added dimension to both the character and witch’s abilities. Alex awakens to find that he has been kidnapped by an evil witch named Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter). This sorceress informs Alex that she will kill him immediately unless he can provide some unique utility or talent. Fearing for his life, Alex yells out that he has a penchant for writing scary stories. Natacha is intrigued by this talent of the young boy and spares his life. She puts him to work next to her previous servant, Yasmin (played by Lidya Jewett), a young girl who, like Alex, had been lured by the magically mobile apartment and has been set to work for the witch to remain alive. As well, Natacha tells Alex that she expects him to produce a scary story every night to be told to her or suffer grave consequences. Again, a change to the original folklore (and a similarity in style and purpose to 1001 Arabian Nights) that serves a greater purpose in the conclusion of the story.
From here, we get the expected narrative markers: Yasmin informing Alex of the full scope of their predicament adding layers of obstacles (in particular a fellow prisoner in the form of an intelligent and magical cat by the name Lenore), bonding between the pair as they struggle through their chores and survival, Alex coming to terms with his limitations and insecurities, the classic construction and execution of a game changing and life saving mission by the two heroes, and the eventual resolution and defeat of the evil witch.
Although Nightbooks does follow the expected fairy tale beats, the surprises and twists it offers make it more than simply the sum of its parts. Is there a witch death? Absolutely, just perhaps not the witch you expect. Do the kids grow and learn about themselves? Also yes, but maybe they learn more about what it means to grow up and the pitfalls that journey can have. Is the villain sympathetic? Surprisingly, kind of. Or at least one of them is to an extent. In short, Nightbooks manages to do just enough to separate itself from the source material it borrows from to create something familiar but wholly unique. Plus, as all current productions are wont to do, there is just enough of a tease to allow Netflix to produce more in this universe, and, frankly, I don’t hate the possibility. In fact, I could definitely see this becoming an annual mainstay of the streaming service with diverging casts, narratives, and possibilities. If you were at all a fan of Goosebumps, Lemony Snicket, or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, you’ll probably enjoy this film. So, grab some popcorn, plop your kids down, and put this on. It is the season for it after all.