In the children’s horror movie “Nightbooks,” a preteen boy is held hostage by a malevolent witch. Alex (Winslow Fegley) is a bright kid whose passion lies in writing scary stories. At the start of the movie (on Netflix), Alex renounces the hobby, fearing it makes him a freak show. On his way to burn his notebooks, however, he is lured into the enchanted apartment of Natacha (Krysten Ritter), who threatens to kill Alex unless he spins her a new tale every evening.
For Alex, Natacha’s home is a dark and sinister prison, but it is also a Victorian wonderland. Venture through the right door and you might find a vast library, a magic garden or a unicorn forest. Alex soon befriends Yasmin (Lidya Jewett), another child held captive in the space, and together the Hansel and Gretel pair plot their escape.
Several moments in “Nightbooks,” directed by David Yarovesky and based on a book by J.A. White, are genuinely frightening. During some sequences, particularly those that center a creepy-crawly menace called a Shredder, I was tempted to cover my eyes. The director David Yarovesky has a knack for tricks of light — shadows, neon night vision and motion cast in silhouette — and the movie is at its most deliciously chilling when it favors visual flair over jump scares.
In its balance of kid-centric themes and unsettling images, “Nightbooks” follows a path paved by horror standouts like “Coraline” and the early works of Tim Burton. Yarovesky’s fairy tale spookfest ultimately doesn’t measure up to the moody ingenuity of those reference points, but its devotion to frights makes it memorable.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch on Netflix.