Save for a small handful of recent films like “The House with the Clock in Its Walls” or the “Goosebumps” movies — nearly all with Jack Black as comic relief — chillers for children are an uncommon and somewhat dicey proposition. For horror filmmakers even interested in trying, they have to hit an exceedingly narrow target, offering enough scares and intensity to delight intrepid tweens without sending them diving under their parents’ comforters with nightmares. Based on J.A. White’s novel, “Nightbooks” will certainly push its audience to the limit with its unrelenting fusillade of jump scares, black magic and campfire stories, but its whimsical touches, along with a reverence for creative young minds, gives the film a warmth that counterbalances its shocks.
Co-produced by Sam Raimi through his Ghost House Pictures shingle, “Nightbooks” often feels like a kid-friendly version of Raimi’s “The Evil Dead II,” with its haunted locale, its magical books flush with ancient specters and even an enchanted forest sequence that deploys his deranged POV camera technique. Though the film could use a Bruce Campbell type to add some slapstick fun, it does get a boost from Krysten Ritter, whose career playing chaos agents on TV shows “Breaking Bad” and “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” makes her a natural for a cackling witch who loves putting children through the wringer. She makes being evil look like fun, at least when it’s not exasperating. In that sense, Ritter’s performance channels Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Young Alex (Winslow Fegley) is already in major distress before he even encounters the witch, however. His passion for the horror genre has made him a pariah among his grade-school peers, which leads him to dismantle a bedroom full of posters for movies such as “The Lost Boys” and “The People Under the Stairs,” and to gather his “nightbooks” of self-penned short stories for disposal in the basement furnace of his apartment building. Before he can reach the bottom floor, however, the elevator opens up on a dimly lit hallway, where he’s drawn toward an open door tempting him, like “Hansel and Gretel,” to irresistible treats — in this case, an old horror movie on TV and a piece of pumpkin pie with whipped cream.
Having fallen into this supernatural trap, Alex is offered a chance to stay alive if he writes a new story for Ritter’s witch every night that meets with her approval. In the meantime, he befriends another prisoner, Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), who’s been under the witch’s thumb for a long time and can help him navigate an apartment full of macabre surprises, like a night garden populated by strange plants and diabolical creatures. He also gains access to a massive library that ignites his imagination while offering clues toward a secret pathway to freedom. He just needs to keep turning in good stories on deadline to a tough editor — which sounds like a job in journalism, frankly.
Best known for playing the title character in Tom McCarthy’s Disney Plus feature “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” Fegley adds a year and a pair of spectacles to a similar brand of preteen precociousness, but “Nightbooks” grounds his character in a more recognizable fear and anxiety. The irony at the film’s center is that the witch provides Alex with a more attentive and appreciative audience for his work than his parents or his peers. Ritter is like Kathy Bates in “Misery”: She wants the stories to go in a specific direction — no happy endings allowed — but no one can say she’s not fully invested in her captive’s writing.
In turning the witch’s apartment into a carnival funhouse, director David Yarovesky (“Brightburn”) and his production designer, Anastasia Masaro, create a varied and borderless array of secret rooms that act as both a spooky prison for Alex and Yazmin and a space of limitless possibility. Younger children may flee from Yarovesky’s aggressive cinematics, but “Nightbooks” was made for the Alexes of the world, who are too young for the vast majority of horror movies, but want to experience those Halloween monsters come to life. For them, this is the ideal gateway into the macabre.