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'Nightbooks' director talks cat poop and Evil Dead-inspired unicorns in Netflix’s family-friendly horror feature

By Vanessa Armstrong
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Netflix’s Nightbooks is a spooky film, but it’s also a film the whole family can watch. The Sam Raimi-produced feature focuses on a boy named Alex (Winslow Fegley) who finds himself trapped in a witch’s apartment (Krysten Ritter) and who must tell her a scary story each night in order to stay alive. The movie is hauntingly endearing, and you can’t help but root for Alex and his friend Yasmin (Lidya Jewett) as they try to escape from the witch and keep their plans secret from her disappearing cat, Lenore.

Nightbooks is director David Yarovesky’s first family-friendly affair. His earlier projects include 2019’s Brightburn, a very R-rated tale that explores what could happen if someone like Superman came to Earth and wasn’t as friendly as Clark Kent. Nightbooks, which is based on the eponymous children’s book by J.A. White, is a departure from Yarovesky’s gorier fare. It’s still a scary story though, and one that pays homage to the horror genre while telling a delightfully wicked tale.

SYFY WIRE had the chance to interview Yarovesky about his work on Nightbooks, including how a very memorable scene between Lenore and Alex came to pass.

Yarovesky wasn’t planning to do a family-friendly movie. When the Nightbooks opportunity came to his attention, however, he was intrigued not only because Sam Raimi was producing, but also because the kid protagonist, Alex, reminded him of himself at that age.

“I know what it feels like to be made fun of for being goth or scary because I like horror movies,” he told SYFY WIRE. “I felt compelled to make this movie because I felt like I could tell this story and send a little hopeful message to the next generation of kids … I could send them a message and say, ‘Hey, I know it sucks now, but keep going because your obsession is magic.' And being creative and being different is what we need in this world — please keep doing it, and don't let the world soften your magic.”

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Even though parents can have their kids watch Nightbooks and not worry about excessive violence or gore, the movie does have nods to more than a few classic horror films. “I wanted to go outside the normal boundaries of what someone would reference in a family film,” Yarovesky said. “So much of what this movie was was taking hardcore horror movies like Sam Raimi’s brand of horror and making it playful and fun and safe for our family.”  

Yarovesky achieved that by taking references from hardcore horror movies and making them pink and sparkly and sweet. Perhaps the most notable example of this is his depiction of a unicorn in the woods. The unicorn with glowing red eyes is a bit scarier than the usual versions we’ve seen of the mythical animal. “I wanted to shoot it like Evil Dead,” he said. “So we shot  these insane unicorn point-of-view chase shots.”

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Evil Dead-inspired unicorns are only one scary and magical part of Nightbooks. Arguably the most terrifying performance in the film is the wickedly wicked witch played by Ritter. Ritter’s portrayal in Nightbooks is also something outside of her usual acting fare, but she and Yarovesky bonded over their love of Lost Boys and the potential to do something different in the genre. “I wanted to make a new kind of look for this world, for dark horror fantasy” he said. “I talked to Krysten about that she got really excited and also really excited about the character.”

Another character that’s sure to be a favorite of many is the sometimes-invisible cat, Lenore. Lenore and the kids have an antagonistic relationship for most of the film, and the cat isn’t afraid to express his dislike of them. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Lenore — invisible — goes to the bathroom on Alex’s breakfast. The viewer at first just sees something appear in mid-air out of nowhere and then … poop happens. You can check out the scene at the end of the featurette below:

The scene was one Yarovesky created when he needed to show that the cat and Alex weren’t on good terms. “We needed to say like, ‘Hey, Lenore hates Alex, we need, Lenore to sh*t on him in some way,’” he recalled. While brainstorming, Yarovesky played with the idea of making that point literally. The idea made him laugh so hard he included it in the movie, and was pleasantly surprised that Netflix let him keep it in the film. “I have this belief that the moment you start finding that thing that everyone loves but you feel like no one will let you put it in the movie, that's the thing you should definitely put in the movie,” he said.

Netflix apparently agreed, and Yarovesky and his creative team made it the best poop scene they could. “People's minds would be blown if they knew how much sophisticated detail and artistry goes into a poop joke,” he said with a laugh. “But it's a good poop joke, I don't know what to else say.”

Nightbooks scares its way onto Netflix on Sept. 15.