Alex (Winslow Fegley) is a young boy who loves all things horror/scary to the point he writes his own stories. Alex's interests are seen as "weird" by his classmates and one night in a bout of frustration he decides to burn his collections of scary stories he's written called "Nightbooks". While taking an elevator down to the basement, the elevator stops at a dark hallway where he is lured into an apartment by an unseen force. Alex finds out the apartment belongs to a witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter) who initially plans to kill him, but after learning of his penchant for conjuring scary stories Natacha keeps him for the purposes of telling one scary story a night with only one unbreakable rule: no happy endings! Along with Alex and Natacha the apartment is also inhabited by a magic cat named Lenore and another child, Yazmin (Lidya Jewett), who serves as Natacha's housekeeper/gofer. Isolated in the witch's library for hours on end, Alex comes across messages left by one of the previous child prisoners that hints at a possible means of escape.
Based on the 2018 horror-fantasy children's book of the same name by J. A. White, Nightbooks was acquired for adaptation by Netflix in 2019. Written by screenwriting team Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, whose previous credits include The Curse of La Llorona and Five Feet Apart, and directed by David Yarovesky, who previously gave us the Superman inspired horror film Brightburn, the film has a lot of potential behind the scenes along with the producing prowess of Sam Raimi through his Ghost House label. The movie doesn't go as far with its premise as it could have, but it's an enjoyable family film with a frightful edge that makes for good Halloween season viewing.
Winslow Fegley who previously headlined the Disney+ original Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made and will next be seen in the upcoming comedy film, 8-Bit Christmas, is well cast as Alex. Fegley makes a sympathetic lead playing Alex as a frustrated outsider who has a love of horror and the macabre and he makes the character worth rooting for. A big part of Alex's arc is in self-acceptance in how he grows to hate the thing he loved because it didn't measure up with how other people thought he should be, and it's a good message for kids not to let other people's superficial standards dictate who you are. Lidya Jewett is also good as a harder edged character, Yazmin, who's cynical and pessimistic from having been held captive by the witch for an untold amount of time, and there's some great creative sequences at play such as a sequence where Alex and Yazmin have to tackle and infestation on the witch's Night Nursery which houses all manner of bizarre and unworldly plants. The production design is also quite impressive with the witch's apartment adorned in all manner of imagery ranging from creepy and foreboding to magical and wonderous. Then of course we have Krysten Ritter as the witch Natacha and she is absolutely fantastic easily placing herself on the same level as other movie witches bringing both the threatening elegance of Angelica Huston's Grand High Witch from 1990s The Witches and the playful campiness of Bette Middler's Winnie Sanderson from Hocus Pocus. Ritter balances the camp and threat of her character owing every scene she's in with gleefully palpable duplicity.
The one downside is the titular Nightbooks feel very brushed over. When we're first introduced to Alex's Nightbooks, we're given a short story called "The Playground" where a red background and simplistically drawn environments are filled with live action actors who all speak with Alex's voice, it's a creative technique for conveying Alex's stories because it captures that feeling of something written by a child that also has that horror "edge" to it. My primary issue is that aside from that story and one later (that's more plot relevant) we never see this style utilized again and it feels like a squandered opportunity as it reminded me of something like the animation seen in Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life or Diary of a Wimpy Kid where it played with simplistic animation to bring childlike fantasies to life, and while we do get two here that are really well done, it does feel like it wasn't taken full advantage of.
Nightbooks is a fun horror film that can be enjoyed by families. While it doesn't quite reach the pinnacle of the best family horror films it comes pretty close. The three principle actors are all fantastic with Krysten Ritter in particular making for a fantastic villain. While the movie doesn't run full force with all its ideas, it's an intelligent and well made film that promises and delivers on Halloween fun.