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Nightbooks Review: Horror For Kids

The topic of gateway horror stories for young people interested in the genre is, depending on who you ask, either a non-issue or a very sensitive issue that requires care, patience, and a firm set of rules. I grew up in a house where horror stories of any kind weren't really allowed until I was a teenager, but I also went to school with kids who were intimately familiar with the various murders of Freddy and Jason by the time they were seven. While I don't necessarily want to cast judgement on parental figures at either end of that spectrum out of hand, I'd hazard a guess that the best approach is somewhere in the middle, giving kids a tantalizing peek at the horror genre through stories they can digest through their own lenses.

That's what "Nightbooks," the new Netflix original film from writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (based on the novel by J.A. White) and directed by David Yarovesky, sets out to do with its tale of kids descending into a dark world of endless rooms and witches hungry for power. With an instantly endearing cast, a story that delivers on the promise of kid-level horror, and an overarching emphasis on the importance of stories in the lives of the young and the old, it's a film that achieves what it set out to do and then some, and feels destined to be an introduction to the wide world of horror for more than a few eager viewers.

Obsessed with horror

"Nightbooks" takes its name from Alex (Winslow Fegley), a young boy so obsessed with horror stories that he fills notebooks — which he dubs his "nightbooks" — with tales of his own about haunted playgrounds and deadly vampires. Alex loves horror so much that his parents center his birthday parties around the genre, so much that his room is a shrine to Fangoria magazine and movies like "The Lost Boys," so much that ... well, it's actually starting to cause some problems. Driven by an episode of schoolyard mockery that's led him to believe he's a weirdo for loving horror so much, Alex flees his family apartment one night and slips right into a trap. It seems a witch (Krysten Ritter) has set up shop in the building, capturing children in her own enchanted apartment, and Alex has fallen prey to her appetites.

But this is not a witch who just wants to devour children whole, especially in Alex's case. Once she learns that he loves to write nightbooks of his own, the witch is especially interested in Alex's stories, and basically creates an "Arabian Nights"-style arrangement with him: If he keeps telling her new stories, he gets to stay alive. But of course, Alex is after more than survival, and with the help of Yazmin (Lidya Jewett) — the other child in the witch's endless apartment prison — he hopes he can find a way back to his family.

Even within this initial setup, there's a lot of rich thematic and narrative territory to mine, and Daughtry and Iaconis' strip takes full advantage. On the surface, the setup of the witch's apartment means there's no shortage of new adventures for Alex and Yazmin, whether we're talking about the seemingly endless library that stretches up to the sky, or the nursery where terrifying plants wait to be brewed into potions. On a deeper thematic level, of course, there's plenty of room for exploration of what it means to tell stories as a means of self-preservation, and how stories and our connection to them can save us. That adds a layer of not just depth but maturity to a story that, thanks to Yarovesky's playful direction, still very much plays like a narrative for kids interested in spooky stories.

The joy of horror for kids

The layers at work in "Nightbooks" also mean, of course, that the cast has to carry a level of emotional depth even as they're dealing with the wilder, more genre-heavy elements of the narrative. As Alex, Fegley must simultaneously be the enthusiastic horror nerd, the scared kid who's worried he can't handle himself, and the insecure storyteller looking for a way to write himself out of his horrors. As Yazmin, Jewett must simultaneously play the icy cool kid, the vulnerable victim, and the brave young woman who doesn't yet know her own power. Then there's Ritter, who somehow has to play against that complexity and match it while also playing the witch as a scenery-chewing villain who lies somewhere between horror hostess Elvira, Siouxsie Sioux, and Regina from "Mean Girls." Together they craft a trio of performances that finds a deft balance between humor, horror, and heart, and they make "Nightbooks" a page-turner.

But what really works about "Nightbooks," even beyond the creature feature fun of the horror scenes and the over-the-top nature of Ritter's character balanced with the relatable work of the kids, is the way in which everyone involved seems so dialed in to articulating the horror experience for children not in terms of raw, human terror, but in terms of stories and how they land in our hearts and minds. In the same way that Netflix's recent "Fear Street" trilogy seemed primed to perfectly capture the teenage horror viewing experience, "Nightbooks" steps forward to fill that same need for 10-year-olds who are in need of a spooky movie fix, and I don't just mean in terms of subject matter. There's a genuine emotional connection here that begins with Alex's horror obsession, and it's something that asks us as viewers to think about exactly why this particular kid is so into scary stories, what they offer him, and what they can offer us in turn. For a certain type of kid, horror narratives represent control, a sense that they can not just endure a scary story but conquer it, grow beyond it, even embrace it. It's a feeling that starts with an almost reverent curiosity that then grows to a fever pitch once that kid realizes that they can actually enjoy horror stories independent of their own real-life fears. There's something intensely liberating and empowering about that, particularly to kids who think of themselves as the weird ones.

In that way, "Nightbooks" is not just an effective little family horror adventure, but an ode to weird kids everywhere.

"Nightbooks" is on Netflix September 15.