Krysten Ritter as witch Natacha in Netflix YA horror "Nightbooks".

A Playful B-Movie for Terrible Days — “Nightbooks”

The day I watched “Nightbooks” was a terrible day. Work was taking longer because of internet issues that had spanned a week. I had a D&D session with friends scheduled online that night. It’s one of the few things that’s kept me grounded and de-stressed during the pandemic. Nothing worked; I couldn’t join. Try being on the phone with Comcast at 10:30 pm; it’s an awful way to end the day. I needed something exciting, uplifting, escapist, dark but…cheesy at the same time. I needed something like “Legend” or “The Goonies”, something that believes B-movies speak to our soul in ways awards contenders never can.

Well, there was that film where Krysten Ritter plays a witch. Wait, what? Yes, the movie where it looks like our goth queen chews every piece of scenery in sight. I mean, you can’t go too wrong with that, can you?

“Nightbooks” is exactly the kind of film I wanted. It’s a young adult (YA) horror movie that delivers a mix of cheese, earnest fairy tale, and horror homage to remind the kid in you that it’s not all pandemic and work delays and late-night Comcast rendezvous.

Winslow Fegley plays Alex, a child who runs away from his parents in a fit of anger and embarassment. He loves horror movies and writes scary stories, but now he wants to destroy them all. He gets off at the wrong floor and is lured into an apartment by a slice of pie and a TV playing his favorite movie: 80s horror classic “The Lost Boys”. When he wakes up, he’s confronted by a witch. How can he be useful to her? By doing the one thing he’s sworn to never do again: write scary stories. He’ll have to tell her one a night for eternity. If he misses one, he’ll be killed. It’s “One Thousand and One Nights” as YA horror.

The witch, her cat familiar, and the apartment itself all hold secrets to uncover, and secrets give Alex the hope of escape. There’s also Lidya Jewett’s Yasmin, a survivor who’s been trapped in the apartment for years. Will she help him, or has she already given up hope?

It’s all painted broadly, but as Krysten Ritter’s witch Natacha reminds Alex, every story must be based on some element of truth. So what is the truth at the core of “Nightbooks”? Why is it so successful at what it does?

The broad strokes of “Nightbooks” are familiar fairy tale territory. The details can remind you of other YA adaptations. There are notes of everything from “The Thief of Always” to “Harry Potter”. “Nightbooks” shares some DNA with those classics. Alex’s story is compelling because it’s the story of every kid who’s dealt with anxiety, self-hate, creative block, or impostor syndrome.

Natacha is a scary witch who can do terrifying things, and Ritter rides a Tim Curry-esque line of hamming it up while still nailing the point home. What truly makes her frightening isn’t her powers, though. It’s not the threat of a fate worse than death. The moments that cut most deeply are the ones where she picks apart Alex’s stories, tells him an idea is stupid or inaccurate, that he’s disappointing her.

None of us know what a scary witch can do. Few of us are familiar with fates worse than death. Yet so many know exactly what sitting in that chair can feel like as the things we care most deeply about, the futures we envision for ourselves, the passions that allow us to find value and meaning in our lives – we know what it’s like to sit there and watch them be torn down one by one. We know what it’s like when someone does that simply to remind us that they have so much power and control they can end with words our entire idea of who we want to be.

We also know what it’s like to fight back against that. We know what it’s like to decide not to believe it, to realize that they are just words spoken by someone desperate to frighten and control us. Sure, “Nightbooks” is a fairy tale about kids trying to escape a witch, tale as old as time. The truth on which it’s built is about kids realizing that who they want to be isn’t someone else’s decision.

“Nightbooks” couches this within a movie that genuinely embraces horror. There is a ceiling to the level of scary it becomes – it’s a movie for kids, too, after all. Yet it pushes the boundary and lovingly recalls a host of horror movies. It’s not just empty reference either. By repeating visual themes adults might already be familiar with, it deepens many of the emotional moments for the characters on-screen. This is absolutely a B-movie, but it’s a B-movie that fully understands how the genre disarms us. It doesn’t have to find a way around our guard when our guard’s already down. It has a deep understanding for horror, camp, and kitsch movie history.

The technical aspects are great across the board. There’s some exceptional sound editing in “Nightbooks”. That may not seem like the most exciting factor to point out, but it does so much to anchor us in its world. The cinematography and art direction also excel.

Fegley and Jewett are good as child actors go, especially in a project that asks a lot of them. I wouldn’t say they sell us on their situation in a dramatic way, but in a film like “Nightbooks”, that’s not their job. Their job is to be as much kids as they are actors, and they find that balance.

“Nightbooks” is also surprisingly funny. Alex’s stories-within-a-story are told as if they’re melodramatic, silent movies he’s narrating. They’re constantly interrupted by the witch’s criticisms, many of which make Alex change his stories on the fly. The presentation of these stories is genuinely endearing, and Ritter’s delivery has a way of both cutting deep from inside the story while making us laugh at her timing.

That may seem mean, but the way this type of B-movie communicates is to have us appreciate and love the references and performances even as we inhabit and feel its world. We can laugh at the comedy in Natacha’s delivery without laughing at Alex, and we can feel bad for what Alex is enduring while still wanting to hear more of Natacha. This is the magic B-movies can find, watching them from the outside as a performance and feeling them from the inside as a story at the same time. It’s not so different from what Charlie Kaufman’s done in films like “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation”, where we can feel bad for characters inside the story while still being amused at what an actor’s doing to elicit those emotions. He didn’t invent that meta-approach, he simply transported it. It’s existed in B-movies for decades.

That dual way of watching “Nightbooks” is its greatest strength. Ultimately, it’s not a perfect film. The CG elements are hit and miss. A mid-film action scene feels out of place. It could’ve cut an entire sequence out of its ending. Yet watching this kind of film, it’s hard to care about those things when it constantly recovers with another good sequence, unexpected laugh, or meaningful moment. What does work here is often a gorgeous re-purposing of the genre.

I think kids can get a lot out of the themes of “Nightbooks”. They don’t have enough stories that really deal with complex issues like impostor syndrome and anxiety. They need to see work like this because these are things that they’re already dealing with, but don’t have many stories to help them process it. It’s definitely a movie to watch alongside them, though. There are genuine scares here.

The awkward reality is that so much of “Nightbooks” speaks to horror fans who can identify and understand all the references and elements happening. These can really deepen the scenes’ themes beyond an initial sense of recognition or nostalgia. Yet the target audience for this is kids, who are pretty unlikely to have seen “Suspiria”, “Evil Dead”, or “The Lost Boys”.

For adults, I think “Nightbooks” is a lot better if you’re well-versed in horror and you’re content to put yourself in the mindset of a YA film. There’s a good amount of overlap in that Venn diagram, and you probably know if you’re in it or not. If you have any doubt, try having a terrible day first. “Nightbooks” can definitely help with that.

You can watch “Nightbooks” on Netflix.

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