TL;DR – Hansel and Gretel with a twist.
Review (warning: spoilers)
What does it mean to be “normal“? On his birthday, for young Alex (Winslow Fegley) something has happened that has his parents worried. The mother is concerned that Alex will be emotionally scarred, and the father wonders whether Alex’s obsession with tales of horror doesn’t make him “normal”.
You see, Alex has a creative passion for horror stories but has now expressed he’ll never write another story again. He packs his stuff in a backpack with the intention of burning all his work.
Alex sneaks out of their apartment without his parents knowing and enters the building elevator. He presses basement and the lift starts its descent. All seems normal until the elevator suddenly shudders to an unexpected stop, and the doors open to reveal a dark hallway.
He wanders down and enters, what looks like, an empty apartment with an old television showing the horror flick, “The Lost Boys”. He spies a plate with a slice of pie and takes a bite. He then falls unconscious as the door to the apartment closes by itself behind him.
For a kid who supposedly knows a lot about horror, he seems oblivious to all the things that scream at you to get the hell out of there. Not the least of which is deciding to enter a stranger’s apartment and eating a stranger’s pie while a horror film is showing on a TV that strangely is working while the rest of the apartment seems to have lost electricity.
Upon awakening, Alex discovers he is now captive inside a magical apartment that can travel and appear anywhere in the world. Its purpose is to lure kids into it. This magical abode is owned by the witch, Natacha (Krysten Ritter), who only keeps kids around if they’re useful. Alex reveals he can write scary stories, and Natacha spares his life on condition that he write and tell her a scary story every night.
Exploring the apartment, he bumps into Yazmin (Lidya Jewett), a girl also trapped and serves as housekeeper inside the apartment. She shows him around including a huge library with a collection of horror stories. Yazmin explains that she was made to read to Natacha every night one of the stories but now the witch has gone through the entire collection.
The interactions between Natacha and Alex during story time is amusing because she constantly critiques Alex’s stories. For example, ghosts can’t physically push objects. In a way, she is actually trying to make Alex a better writer.
“Every good story hints at truth. The more truth, the more powerful the story,” she says.
And while Alex tries to write for survival, he discovers that another (previous) captive has left messages in the pages of books in the library. He attempts to piece together how he and Yazmin might escape.
Director David Yarovesky has created a film (based on J A White’s dark fantasy children’s novel of the same name) that puts a spin on the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. And there’s enough to like for young and older audiences to be engaged. There’s a Goonies crossed with Coraline feel to the film, and Krysten Ritter’s depiction of Natacha the witch is a delight (along with the stylishly outlandish costumes she wears).
When finally it is revealed what happened on Alex’s birthday to cause him to give up on writing, it coincides with a delightful twist that makes Nightbooks more layered than expected.
The message that being weird or different is perfectly fine is obvious. And while the scares are aimed squarely at younger audiences, there’s enough polish to reveal this film as a hidden gem.
7.5 out of 10