With some out-of-town friends staying at the house of the old man I live with, I decided halt the onslaught of Karate Kid movies in favor of giving them the choice of the evening’s entertainment. They came up with a few options, and the one that seemed most interesting (based solely on previews) was Nightbooks (2021). If you view the promotional material for it, it has somewhat of a Stranger Things (2016-present) vibe to it. I like Stranger Things, as does seemingly half the planet, and like any other fan, I have been waiting in anticipation of the next season. In the meantime, I will have to be satiated with titles like Nightbooks. It is not as good as the Netflix series, but they are made by the same streaming service, so that counts for something, right? Actually, it is not that bad. It left me with a lot of questions, I guessed the plot pretty easily right away, but it managed to be creative nonetheless. I will take creative.
Poor Alex (Winslow Fegley). His spooky-themed birthday kicks off Nightbooks, but nobody comes to it. He believes the reason for the non-attendance is because his classmates view him as a freak, and you can hear his mom (Jess Brown) and dad (Mathieu Bourassa) discussing this notion as he sits alone, devastated. Alex loves writing scary stories, has an affinity for horror material, and he seems to be unique among his classmates in this regard. In anger, he runs out of his apartment, gets in the elevator, and hits the button for the basement. Before he can reach his destination, there is a rumbling and the doors open on a different floor. As he passes another apartment with the door open, there is a lurid red color bathing a television screen. This does something to Alex, and entranced, he enters. He goes on to mechanically eat a piece of pumpkin pie before falling unconscious. When he awakens, he is in an unfamiliar room. Before he can get too far in his confused exploration, he is greeted by an appearing and disappearing Siamese cat named Lenore. This strange pet is not the only other figure in the room. Suddenly, there appears a witch going by Natacha (Krysten Ritter). She is the one who had arranged for Alex to come to her enchanted apartment, and he is there to tell stories. According to Natacha, this is his new purpose, and if he does not do so, she will kill him, backing up her threats with a demonstration of her power. He protests, saying he does not write anymore. This, too, attracts Natacha’s notice, and she demands to know why he had wanted to burn his stories. Alex dodges the answer, and eventually she goes away. Soon thereafter, Alex discovers there is another resident in the apartment. This is Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), who is also there against her will. Her job is to prepare food for Natacha, but also to show Alex into the incongruously large library on one side of the apartment. Thinking he now has an ally and a new friend, Alex attempts to ingratiate himself with Yasmin but she emphasizes the need to focus on survival. For Alex, this means writing, but he finds himself with a severe case of writer’s block. Searching through the tomes on the shelves for inspiration, he comes across notes in the margins of some of the books from somebody who had previously been imprisoned. Unfortunately, they are not in one place, and he must look through other books in order to piece a narrative together. At the same time, he begins reading stories from his notebooks to Natacha, and learns in the process that she will critique his work along the way. The main rule that she sets down is that his tales must have a sad ending. This is a problem because everything he has have happy ones, and he has been unable to write anything new. There are also other ways in which Alex and Yasmin’s magical captor already easily provoked anger can be piqued. One of Yasmin’s other jobs is to clean out Natacha’s laboratory/greenhouse. A few years of doing this has made her intimately familiar with this rooms’ contents. Unfortunately, Alex does not have the same knowledge, and his lack of experience leads to a near disaster. This only serves to make him search for the mysterious thread he found in the library, particularly because it seems to be leading to an escape plan. Ultimately, the answer is a powerful sleeping potion, though they are unsure of the last ingredient. This gives Alex the inspiration he needs to trick Natacha into revealing the information. With a little help from Lenore, who also is a captive, they knock Natacha with their concoction, steal her keys, and make it into a forest. Unfortunately, this turns out to be part of the apartment as well. Wandering through it, they are both enticed by a gingerbread house, and they are once more captured. When Natacha catches up with them, it is in the basement of the gingerbread house where there is entombed the original witch. Natacha then reveals that she had once been a hostage like them, but then she tricked the original witch and stole her powers. It is the scary stories that keep her asleep and allow Natacha to siphon the magic. Seeing things begin to shake apart with an awakening witch, Alex begins talking about the tragedy of his lack of friends, including the betrayal of the person he thought to be his best friend. He then turns it into a happy ending, which brings the witch bursting forth from her tomb and giving him and Yasmin the window they need to escape. With Natacha crushed by falling debris, the old witch follows them into Alex’s apartment building. Luckily, they are able to incinerate the witch in the building’s boiler. With the day saved, they each reunite with their parents.
At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that I had questions about Nightbooks. The biggest one, though, has to do with the reality of the story. After we finished our viewing, our out-of-town friend compared it to The Neverending Story (1984). That is a good call. However, in that movie, Bastian Bux (Barret Oliver) is making up the story as he goes along, though he does not realize it until the end. In Nightbooks, I kept expecting the same thing. It is clear from the beginning that the whole thing is an idealized version of Hansel and Gretel, the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale about children that are lured by sweets to a witch’s house, and their ultimate doom of being cooked alive in an oven. They ratchet up the parallels between the tales as the film goes along. The part I missed is in the fact that it all actually happened. Until the very end, I expected Alex to wake up, or that this had been one of his stories. But, no, it is real. So, I guess they are not going to deal with the notion that magic is apparently real as well? Oh well.
What kept me interested in Nightbooks throughout was Alex’s character. It is easy to root for him. As somebody who did not have a ton of friends in elementary school, who was treated like a freak by his peers, I could identify with the main character. While I do not completely remember how I handled my isolation (I had sports and I read a lot), Alex does not let his bitterness overtake him. Sure, there is the moment he runs out of his empty birthday party, which lands him in the predicament we see him work through in the movie. Still, he exemplifies a sacrificial love for others that is a well-worn (deservedly so) theme for many reviews here on The Legionnaire. When Yasmin incurs Natacha’s wrath, and it seems like the witch is about to kill her, Alex steps in and takes the blame for whatever tragedy took place. Because his stories are the key to keeping the original witch asleep, she spares him. In doing so, Natacha also mentions something about storytelling that caught the attention of this Catholic reviewer, saying that the more truth it contains, the more power it possesses. If that is not a metaphor, however unintentional, for the Bible, then I should probably find something else to give meaning to my entire life.
Nightbooks is a solid movie, creative, but nothing spectacular. There are some genuinely entertaining moments, but also aspects that I frankly did not understand. For example, why could Natacha not write the stories, especially since that seemed to be her role when she became ensnared by the witch? It is not entirely important, but there is enough of it to make the film flawed. Still, if there is nothing else on, why not?