Alex is obsessed with all things horror. He’s read all the books. He has posters from horror movies hung on his walls. For his birthday, he goes with a haunted house theme. He even dabbles in writing his own scary stories.
But that all changes one night after the kids at school make fun of Alex.
He tears the posters down, rips apart all his horror memorabilia and heads down to the basement of his apartment building to burn his Nightbooks (the notebooks where he writes his terrifying tales) in the boiler room furnace.
Except that Alex never makes it to the basement.
The elevator stops on the wrong floor and won’t budge. Alex gets off to head for the stairs on the other side of the hall. But before he can make it, he’s lured into an open apartment with The Lost Boys (his favorite movie) playing on TV with a slice of pumpkin pie (his favorite dessert) sitting next to it.
Alex walks in, eats the pie and is … trapped.
Turns out the apartment houses an evil witch named Natacha. And if Alex doesn’t want her to kill him, he’ll have to become useful to her.
And it just so happens that this witch enjoys scary stories.
Alex learns that he isn’t the only child trapped in the witch’s apartment. Yasmin, a young girl who’s good at science, has been trapped there for three years. Like Alex, she’s also a bit of an outcast.
At first, Yasmin tells Alex to take care of himself, and she’ll take care of herself. However, after Alex saves Yasmin’s skin by lying to Natacha and taking the blame for a mistake of Yasmin’s, she warms up to him, eventually working with him to plot an escape.
A cat called Lenore spies on Alex and Yasmin, reporting all their wrongdoing to Natacha. Yasmin loathes Lenore for ratting her out, but Alex takes pity on the cat, realizing that Lenore isn’t just a pet but a prisoner like them. He rescues her from danger and helps fix up some of her wounds, earning Lenore’s loyalty and affection.
[Spoiler Warning] Although it’s hinted from the start that Alex was mocked by his classmates for his love of scary things, we eventually learn that he only had one friend, and that friend ditched Alex on his birthday in order to hang out with “cooler” kids. This event caused Alex to hate scary things and even himself. And he vowed to give it all up because he was terrified of being alone.
But Yasmin and Alex eventually realize that it’s OK to be who they are, even if others think they’re weird. In fact, the only reason the “normal” kids mock them, they realize, is because being “ordinary” is boring. And their weirdness isn’t just something to be celebrated, it’s the key to escaping Natacha’s clutches (which is ironic since Natacha actually likes their weirdness).
Characters demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice themselves for their friends. Though Alex and Yasmin both worry that their parents might forget about them, both sets of parents are relieved when their children finally return home.
Natacha gets her powers from a potion that she sprays on herself every evening (and from which we later learn she harvests from another witch). These supernatural powers allow her to transfigure children into whatever she wants—including statues—create potions from magical plants and telekinetically lift the children into the air (not to mention strangle them).
However, these powers also make her eyes look demonic when she uses them, changing the whites to black and making her pupils cloudy. On a few occasions, Alex and Yasmin’s eyes also cloud over when they are mind-controlled (which is what causes Alex to first fall into the witch’s trap and later causes the kids to eat enchanted candy).
The apartment that Natacha lives in seems to have a mind of its own as well. The doors open and close on their own and even disappear when she’s not actively using them. Occasionally the entire place shakes, and a growling sound can be heard.
A never-ending library is magically contained in one of the apartment’s rooms. When Alex climbs out a window to escape, he is transported through a portal that places him right back where he started. Natacha eventually tells the children that it was the apartment, not the witch herself, which lured them in.
[Spoiler Warning] We later learn the witch Natacha is harvesting powers from is responsible for the apartment. Natacha keeps the witch imprisoned and under an enchanted sleep by reading scary stories—which act as lullabies—to her.
Lenore the cat has the ability to turn invisible and communicate telepathically with Natacha. Yasmin accidentally breeds a creature called a Shredder, which is like a spider with knives for legs and a demonic mouth filled with teeth that lives to kill and destroy. We see a demonic unicorn that Natacha created.
Some of Alex’s stories are played out on screen like a stage play, and we see ghost children with white eyes and a sorcerer fighting a demonic beast. We also hear about possessed teddy bears. Scenes from The Lost Boys play on a TV, depicting vampires.
Natacha threatens the children with death, using her magic to choke them several times. That said, Yasmin points out that they’d be lucky if Natacha killed them, since her real cruelty is transforming the children into living figurines to stand on her shelf ’til the end of time.
Two witches fight each other, and one is crushed beneath a falling wall (though we later learn she survived).
We learn that one witch eats children rather than imprisoning them. (And we see the skulls of these children used as decorations.) [Spoiler Warning] Yasmin and Alex kill this witch by trapping her in a furnace and letting her burn alive.
When Yasmin accidentally breeds several Shredders, the children stomp on the eggs before they can hatch. However, two of the creatures escape and cut the kids up badly before they are also eventually squashed.
Many of Alex’s stories involve death, and one talks about a roller coaster of doom that kills everyone. Alex wishes he could turn the witch into a centipede so he could rip her legs off one by one. He also states a desire for the ceiling to collapse and put him out of his misery.
There are singular uses of “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is abused 14 times. We hear the terms “crap” and “sucks.” And Yasmin and Alex are cruelly called “Try Hard” and “Creepshow” by their classmates.
A sleep draught renders someone unconscious. Yasmin creates a salve that instantly heals wounds.
There are multiple jump scares and suspenseful moments in this film that fall right in line with most other horror flicks—dark corridors, flickering lights, silhouetted figures in the background of shots, etc. We see horror-themed décor in Alex’s home and the witch’s apartment. And one of the witches that the children encounter is stereotypically creepy with bones that bend and snap, a hooked nose, wispy hair and warts.
Alex is forced to give his stories unhappy endings. However, even before he revises them, they are frightening tales of loss, suffering, death and sadness. We learn that one girl who managed to escape the apartment eventually came back when she realized her family had moved on without her.
A cat defecates on Alex’s sandwich. A witch vomits candy onto Yasmin and Alex.
Hidden behind this scary story is a bunch of other scary stories. Altogether, they make for a frightening experience that will keep most kids (though probably not most adults) awake at night.
Alex’s Nightbooks contain some really dark material, especially for a kid. He writes about demonic ghosts, evil sorcerers and death. (In one story, a boy almost dies searching for his dead best friend, who is now a ghost, because he misses her so much.) And even some of the things he says out loud can be pretty sadistic. Which is probably why his parents worry they may have let his obsession go too far when he’s ostracized on his birthday. (I mean, come on, they let the kid watch The Lost Boys, an R-rated film.)
But hidden behind all those frightening tales is a surprisingly deep message about how hard it is to be “different.”
When you’re the only kid in school who loves something—whether it be science or math or fantasy novels or maybe even Jesus—it can be really hard to not give it up to gain others’ acceptance.
Is Alex’s passion for all things that go bump in the night healthy? Maybe not for a kid his age. (And maybe not for anyone.) But it’s not so much about what his fandom is but rather his desire to throw it all away (quite literally in his case) just so he won’t be alone.
However, even with a strong message about how Alex and Yasmin’s weirdness is actually what makes them unique, the film still has more problems than most families will want to tackle. Alex curses more than once (and God’s name is abused a number of times, as well). The witches, scary stories and supernatural abnormalities happening here are pretty dark—especially since one witch eats kids, à la Hansel and Gretel.
Nightbooks is intended as a kid-friendly horror flick. It certainly succeeds at the “horror” part. The “kid-friendly” part? not so much.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.