The child actor stars of “Nightbooks” really “sell” the frights in this Goosebumpy tale of terror. There’s quite a bit of screaming and frantic, gasping weeping at their plight and fear that they won’t survive this predicament or that ordeal.
The effects are decent, the frame for the plot an “Arabian Nights” sort of “Tell me a scar story or die” construction, and the entire enterprise takes on a bookish quality. Books are where the stories are preserved. Books are where the clues lie. Books are how knowledge is passed from one generation of imprisoned kids to the next.
But “Nightbooks” never manages anything that would frighten anyone over the age of 10. It never sheds its “terror with training wheels on” veneer, and simply isn’t entertaining enough to overcome that, the way “Goosebumps” did, on the page and sometimes on the screen.
Considering they had the good sense to cast Krysten Ritter (Marvel TV’s “Jessica Jones”) as the villainous witch, that’s a letdown that’s not just disappointing, it’s surprisingly so.
A “horror obsessed” tween (Winslow Fegley, featured in “Come Play”) storms out of his family’s apartment on his dark and stormy birthday night. He is bound for the basement, determined to toss all his hand-written tales of terror into the furnace. “GARBAGE!” But the elevator leaves him on the wrong floor, in which every empty apartment has its door open and “The Lost Boys” playing on TV. Alex stops, peeks at his favorite scene, takes a bite of pumpkin pie, and wakes up imprisoned by a witch.
Natacha (Ritter) is a demanding she-devil whose hair changes color and whose temper does not improve with every appearance. She orders him to tell her a scary story every night. He will stay in this prison-apartment, subsisting on peanut butter, kept on task and watched-over by her hairless cat, Lenore, who turns invisible at will.
Natacha listens to each tale and sneers, corrects, critiques and — very rarely — encourages his efforts.
We nod our heads in agreement as Natacha blurts out “Stupid!” and “Amateur” and “ODIOUS, a good word.”
The stories are related to us in Alex-narrated voice-over, seen by us as performed by actors in horror makeup on stylized, simple (digital) cut-out sets suitable more for children’s theater than a major motion picture.
Yes, that’s by design, a childish and clever aesthetic choice. But no, the stories — titled “The Playground,” “The Bindweed,” “The Cuckoo Clock,” etc. — aren’t scary or even interesting.
If Alex is to be held here until he becomes the next Stephen King, he’d better learn to shave. It’s going to be a while.
“Every good story hints at truth,” Natacha offers, constructively.
But with his fellow hostage, the smart and cynical Ethiopian-American tween Yasmin (Lidya Jewett of TV’s “Good Girls”) sentenced to cook for the witch (?), Alex schemes and dreams of escape from the vast apartment with no front door. She’s been there longer, and between them, and hints they find in the dust-encrusted library, they might develop a plan.
The kids, as I mentioned in the opening of the review, really buy in and try to make this seem a more fraught experience than it is. But Ritter never lets us forget that this is mostly a makeup job performance. She seems bored and kind of resigned to the work. Her lines aren’t funny, there’s little pop to the character, even though the hair and makeup are a fright.
As I review this, I can’t help but realize that perhaps the reasons this horror tale finished in 2021 wasn’t streamed on Halloween — of 2021 or 2022 — are right here on the screen.
It’s all well and good to tailor your horror movie for children, who have to start their fandom somewhere. But while slick and occasionally stylish it might be, “Nightbooks” never quite gets the job done with a story collection that would have been no great loss had to made it to the basement for incineration after all.
Rating: TV-PG, mild frights
Cast: Winslow Fegley, Lidya Jewett and Krysten Ritter.
Credits: Directed by David Yarovesky, scripted by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, based on a novel by J.A. White. A Ghost House film on Netflix.
Running time: 1:40