Nightbooks premieres Wednesday, Sept. 15 on Netflix.
Jessica Jones‘ Krysten Ritter channels some of her Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 brattiness for Nightbooks, a new junior scare-fest that comes with solid performances, sharp teeth, and some pacing problems.
Based on the book by J. A. White and produced by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House (Don’t Breathe, The Grudge), Nightbooks does its best to evoke quality grim children’s fare, trying to find that sweet spot for younger viewers with regards to suspense and intensity. The story of a young boy — an ostracized horror fan — lured into a trap and held captive by a demanding witch, the movie features kids steeped in serious peril, as those who fall victim to the witch’s lair (a magical apartment that can leap into any building in the world and swipe youths) are never heard from again. From a danger aspect, it dabbles in some nicely disturbing terrain.
Nightbooks, however, never quite finds its full groove, as its middle act is stodgy, bogged down in CGI mayhem (which can often undercut actual scares) and a mystery that’s a little too easy to get in front of. If we focus on just the set-up and resolution, Nightbooks has the goods, but some of the center is a bit chewy. Fortunately, the bulk of the film is held aloft by Ritter’s nervously cranky silver-haired spell-caster and the performances of both Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett.
As Alex, a writer of spooky stories, Fegley is great as the kid who’s metaphorically forced to smoke the entire carton of cigarettes. In the clutches of Ritter’s witch, Alex proves himself useful, thereby ensuring his day-to-day survival, by reading his homegrown scary tales aloud on a nightly basis. The very thing that’s turned him into an outcast is now demanded of him, like debris for a never-ending pyre.
It’s a fun concept that almost provides Nightbooks with a cool anthology vibe, but it’s never fully embraced. Alex’s stories are unveiled using animated interludes, as his sessions with the witch very much feel like a storytime ceremony, but they’re not used frequently enough. Too quickly, the format is ditched and its flare replaced with less intriguing fare. Overall, the movie would have been better if it served up more of this short-form creepiness than baby-stepping around in the witch’s mystery.
Jewett’s Yasmin is the only other k