Nightbooks (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Now he must write scary stories to survive

Netflix movie “Nightbooks”, which was released in last week, is a familiar but solid dark fantasy tale decorated with a number of darkly enjoyable moments to be savored. While mostly unfolded within its rather limited fantasy background, the movie puts some good efforts on alternatively disturbing and entertaining the audiences, and you may end up wanting more after amused and thrilled enough during your viewing.

The opening scene swiftly thrusts its young hero into his perilous plight within a few minutes. Feeling quite miserable about how people around him do not appreciate much his little horror tales, Alex (Winslow Fegley) impulsively decides to burn his private book containing so many scary stories of his, so he goes down to the basement of an apartment building where he and his parents live, but, unfortunately, he soon finds himself entrapped by an evil witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter), who promptly takes him to her magical house where only she can freely come and go.

Although she will not kill him for now, Natacha demands that Alex should write and then read a new scary story everyday, but Alex cannot easily do that for an understandable reason. Yes, as reflected a bit by the opening scene, he has been your average young horror fan who wielded his dark imagination a lot upon that private book of his, but he has been recently stuck in writer’s block as being afraid of getting ridiculed and ostracized more, and this certainly becomes a much bigger problem for him now.

At least, Natacha’s magical place has a huge library packed with many books of horror stories to the top. While there is nothing new for Natacha because she knows the content of every book in the library, these numerous books in the library may give some inspiration to Alex, so he looks for anything to help him before he eventually runs out of those scary stories written in his private book.

In the meantime, he meets two other figures residing in Natacha’s place. One is a grumpy cat which has a magical ability to become invisible, and the other one is an older girl named Yazmin (Lidya Jewett), who was taken to Natasha’s place some years ago and tells Alex more about Natacha’s unspeakable evil. Before Alex, there were many other children kidnapped by Natacha, and, though she is now a housemaid constantly harassed by Natacha, Yazmin is the more fortunate one compared to what happened to other kidnapped children when they were deemed useless by Natasha.

Because he is still not inspired enough to write a new scary story, Alex has no choice but to depend on his private book for next several days, though Natacha turns out to be a pretty tougher audience than expected. While she lets him survive one day after another, she often interrupts his storytelling just because of small and big details she does not like, and that surely puts Alex as well as Yazmin on the edge whenever he attempts to please Natacha with his story.

During Alex’s storytelling scenes, the movie provides to us the simple but striking visual presentations of his scary stories, and that adds some extra spookiness to the ominous mood of the mood. My personal favorite is the one involved with a sorcerer and the mouth of some big and hideous monster, and I especially like how this gruesome tale resonates with what is revealed later in the story.

Besides Alex’s disturbing tales to please his captor, the movie, which is adapted from the book of the same name by J.A. White, gives several other dark moments which will surely entertain certain young audiences who will root for him a lot as discerning the common things between them and him. Constantly shrouded in menacing atmosphere, Natacha’s place has several nasty surprises to behold, and there is a pretty scary moment when Alex and Yazmin happen to have a very serious problem in Natacha’s precious magic garden full of dangerous creatures which must be handled with uttermost care and caution.

The screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis becomes a bit repetitive during the middle act, but then it becomes more engaging as Alex and Yazmin band together for their possible escape from Natacha’s place. I will not dare to tell any spoiler to you, but I can tell you instead that the climactic part of the story works because of not only a fair share of surprise for us but also considerable dramatic impact in terms of plot and characters, and director David Yarovesky did a competent job of delivering a satisfying conclusion coupled with a little naughty wink to us at the end of the story.

The movie depends a lot on its three main performers, and their good performances dutifully fill their archetype roles. While Krysten Ritter certainly has the most fun as expected from her deliciously diabolical character, young performers Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett are likable in their respective roles, and Fegley, who was unflappably funny in “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (2020), confirms again that he is another young talent to watch.

On the whole, “Nightbooks” does not bring anything particularly new to its genre territory, but the overall result is solid enough thanks to its good direction, atmosphere, and performance at least, and I think you should check it out someday if you enjoyed “Goosebumps” (2015) or “Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark” (2019). It did not exceed my expectation, but it did its job fairly well, and that is enough for me for now.

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