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Review: Nightbooks – “The Evil Dead for kids. It’s a blast”

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Nightbooks, released this week on Netflix, is The Evil Dead for kids.  It’s produced by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, of the original Evil Dead trilogy.  It’s a blast.

The film follows Alex (Winslow Fegley – possibly the greatest name in the history of humanity), a kid obsessed with horror movies and stories, who loves to write his own scary stories – the eponymous night books.  Or at least, he did.  Shortly into the movie, an evil witch (Krysten Ritter, best known as Jessica Jones and having an absolute ball here) abducts Alex.  She forces him, on pain of death – or worse, to produce her a new story every night.

This is a PG movie with a 10-year-old protagonist, but I’d recommend discretion in letting young kids watch this.  Fright wise, I’d put it on a par with something like Ghostbusters.  There’s nothing here to remotely frighten an adult or a teenager, but if your kid would be scared of the library ghost in Ghostbusters (which Steven Spielberg apparently described as one of the top 10 all-time scares), then this would traumatise them into a lifetime of expensive therapy.

Anyone familiar with Raimi’s work will see his fingerprints all over this, particularly in some of the creature design and set pieces.  It’s reminiscent of the Dead movies as well as Drag Me to Hell and the Doc Ock surgery scene from Spiderman 2, with all their gleeful ghost train energy and slapstick… yes slapstick.  Raimi’s movies are full of it and the word has become an insult, a derogatory term for low comedy.  Yet he’s proved time and again that slapstick done well is a) very, very funny and b) very hard to get right.

A weak effort from Sam Raimi is as rare as a good one from Michael Bay and the fact that Spiderman 2 was easily the best superhero film for several years means that the Doctor Strangesequel, he’s making must be a must-see.  I’ve yet to see the first and didn’t get on with the comics, so it’s a bit of a quandary.

Anyway, we mustn’t forget that Raimi is the producer, not the director.  That credit goes to David Yarovesky, who also made Brightburn, the evil Superman movie, which I’ve yet to see as reviews at the time weren’t kind and said it overly relied on gore.  He certainly has a sure hand here however, the visuals, pacing and execution are spot-on throughout.

The three leads, completed by Lidya Jewett, are uniformly excellent.  The score is great and there is one needle drop thatwill have audience members of a certain age punching the air in delight.  This, ladies, and gentlemen of the internet is how you do nostalgia in a 21st-century movie, not with a half-arsed remake.

What it also gets right is the story, which, admittedly, is the least you can hope for in a story so heavily invested in stories.  You’ll see where elements of the plot are going, but not all of it, and the story being referenced and updated here (no spoilers) is done in the best way, despite other high-profile efforts over the years.  There’s also an internal logic and consistency to this that is rewarding and refreshing in comparison to many successful movies.

It won’t be for everyone.  This is a kid’s film after all.  And with the Raimi angle, and a writing and horror obsessed lead character it was always going to press my buttons.  But it’s well made, it’s gleeful, the story works well and it’s just huge fun.  In a word, it’s … ‘Groovy.’

Nightbooks is available to stream on Netflix now.

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