Horror fans are some of the best people you’ll ever meet. Whether they look stereotypically “horror fan” or not—I don’t know, I’m guessing lots of black, leather jackets maybe—they’re some of the warmest, friendliest people you’ll have the pleasure of knowing. That’s recognized in horror spheres at least. Still, for those not inoculated in genre hotspots (Los Angeles, Austin), it’s easy to forget that horror fandom is met with public derision as much as it is curiosity. Sure, locals line up to see the latest horror offering at the theater, but mention being a horror fan and you’ll likely encounter either confusion or fear. What do you mean you write about horror movies? Aren’t those a little too dark. David Yarovesky’s (Brightburn) Nightbooks, adapted from J. A. White’s novel of the same name, is horror fandom the movie, and it’ll break your heart before piecing it back together again, stronger than it was before.
Nightbooks is PG horror for the weirdo and horror fan in us all. It celebrates the burgeoning interest in anything outside the norm without ever talking down to young adults about how hard maintaining those interests might be. For as much as parents, teachers, and friends encourage you to be authentically yourself, it’s never that easy. Weird is great as an adult. Weird is painful as a kid.
It’s fitting, then, that certified Hollywood weirdo Sam Raimi was on tap to produce David Yarovesky’s adaptation, lending his genre credos to the film’s admittedly pulse-pounding scares. Alex Mosher (Winslow Fegley) is a young boy living in Brooklyn, introduced eavesdropping on his parents—they’re worried about his interest in scary stories. He rebels, trashing his room and tearing up his titular “night books,” scary stories of his, before fleeing to the basement incinerator to burn them. En route, the elevator stops, he gets off, and he (unwisely) enters an open apartment. A bite of suspicious pumpkin pie later, he’s trapped in the apartment of beautiful witch Natacha (other Hollywood weirdo Krysten Ritter).
Natacha has an assemblage of young children passing through her apartment, most of whom she kills when they no longer prove useful to her. At first, Alex is tasked with housekeeping alongside other survivor, Yasmin (Lidya Jewett). All the while, the apartment moves around the world, Natacha keeps the keys clutched closely to her chest, and an invisible, CG cat both spies on and menaces the pair of youngsters. Natacha takes a particular interest in Alex’s scary stories, and over the course of several nights, he ameliorates her violence with another spooky tale as he and Yasmin plot their escape.
It’s escapist whimsy, gateway horror with a dash (or heap) of earnest scares. While Nightbooks won’t rattle most mature horror fans, it’s akin to Raimi making Drag Me to Hell, kiddie version. Despite just producing, Raimi’s influence is felt all over Nightbooks. It’s intense and tactile in a way most gateway horror offerings aren’t. The motivated jolts and earnest stakes are a rarity, and while Nightbooks never pushes the boundaries of its PG rating too far, it’s arguably one of the scariest pieces of gateway media in recent memory. There were times, especially in that witchy greenhouse, even I was sweating some.
What seals the deal, however, is Nightbooks’ undercurrent of empathy for lost and lonely souls. Alex’s derision toward his own scary stories, it’s revealed, is rooted in a genuinely heartrending backstory. The kids at school think his interest in horror is weird, and on the night of his themed birthday party, no one shows up. Fegley sells the social isolation to tear-jerking effect, highlighting his own sense of perceived inferiority and how, on account of the other kids, he’s been made to hate himself.
Witch Natacha’s backstory is no less tragic, adding compelling wrinkles to a bonafide villain who, while never sympathetic, feels thematically motivated in her reign of witchcraft and terror. It’s a pathos imbued with realism. Nightbooks doesn’t offer any easy answers. There is no cure to feeling left out. All you can do is hope to find someone who values your distinct interests the same as you. And abandonment and loneliness, when left unresolved, are curses, damning even the most promising of souls.
It’s heavy stuff, though Yarovesky wisely keeps it from shifting too far into maudlin doom and gloom territory. Resultantly, Nightbooks emerged as perhaps the most promising gateway horror entry of the past decade. It’s perfect for kids looking for stakes with their horror without being too scary, and it features plenty of horror iconography, including the use of “Cry Little Sister” on the soundtrack, to both placate older horror fans and incite curiosity in the younger ones. When Alex mentions the likes of The Ring or Let the Right One In, younger audiences might be wondering what those movies are. If they can endure Nightbooks’ scares, you might tell them, then, they’ll soon be ready for anything.
Nightbooks is now streaming on Netflix.