2017 | rated R | starring Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxebould | directed by Chris Peckover | 1 hr 29 mins |
We’re going to need to do a little tap dancing around Better Watch Out, the latest contender for modern Christmas classic status alongside quirky-fiendish holiday horror offerings like Rare Exports, Inside and Krampus. It is a movie best seen completely cold, hinging on an early, particularly novel, turn of the plot that is a secret worth keeping in a movie world where surprises are rare. It’s a galloping genre gift and the more you peel open the Christmas wrapping, the darker and nastier it gets. It is a home invasion movie, yes, but in the sense that The Cabin in the Woods is a slasher film or Gone Girl is a missing person mystery – a thoroughly legitimate indulgence in the genre and a trap box of surprises that turns it inside out. It’s wonderfully niche mix of tones that works like gangbusters because of how fully committed director Chris Peckover is to each turn of the screw.
16-year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge, The Visit) is the tough, sweet, babysitter to 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller). When Luke’s parents (Virginia Madsen & Partrick Warburton in cameos) head out for an office Christmas party, Luke and his equally geeky, under-developed best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould, also The Visit), hatch a plan to make Luke seem very cool and grown-up in front of his long-time babysitter crush, a plan that gets upended when the house is actually stalked and threatened by a pack of Christmas intruders forcing Ashley into a night-long fight to keep the kids alive.
The movie looks great. Though it almost never leaves the confines of Luke’s house, the decor is bathed in warm Christmas colors. Peckover makes sure his camera follows Ashley, quite literally as she dives across the floor dodging guns and spiders. On one level, Peckover wants to put John Hughes films, particularly Home Alone and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off up to a real world lens, where Hughes cartoonish antics lead to bone-crunching consequences. Our young heroes deploy the home pranks of Kevin McCallister on their intruders with ghastly, R-rated results. All that may have worked on a snarky one-joke level that would have sputtered out before the end of this admittedly short picture, but peel back that first layer and Better Watch Out immediately proves to have more to say. The real dark interest that Peckover’s turns over here is the sexual expectations of young men. Over the course of the night Ashley navigates around several types of guys, the boy she babysat and formed a friendship with, the boyfriend who screwed up and tries to apologize, the ex who wants to win her back. Her view of their relationships clashes with their desire for more. The way both Luke’s attempts to chug a Champaign bottle to impress his babysitter and Ashley’s exes demanding to see her again, speak to expectations laid out by our pop culture for how to “get the girl” that don’t pay off in the real world – and with disastrous results in this movie. The phrase “Toxic Masculinity” gets tossed around the popular culture a lot by women who don’t know anything about men. Better Watch Out actually has it’s finger pinching the raw nerve behind such competitive peacocking, milking it for genuine unease.
An Australian production, I really wonder if one of the seeds of inspiration was the 1995 Alicia Silverstone vomitorium The Babysitter. That movie centers around Silverstone as the titular babysitter and object of desire and obsession for every single character in the movie, the story of which is a loosely strung together series of would-be erotic fantasy sequences of characters walking in on her in the bathtub. Better Watch Out plays out like a more inventive, impassioned answer to that film. One that gives our heroine more agency, seems to understand the sweet, if here misunderstood, nature of the babysitter/babysat dynamic and turns Babysitter’s weird fetishizing inward for an examination of rotting misunderstandings instead of flat titilation.
From a technical standpoint, Better Watch Out ditches the jump stings of a traditional horror film for a slowly drawn out psychological thriller of wonderfully long monologues and performances that indulge in hammy villainy. You’ve been warned, half of this movie plays out with the theatrical staging of a Wes Craven third act. I love this stuff, I loved every turn the movie took, but those looking for a more textbook horror experience may find the film slow or angering as it talks its way into one unsettling scenario after another. Another word that gets tossed around a lot is “creepy”. Everything is “creepy”. Everyone is “creepy”. Better Watch Out actually knows creepy, dragging out its situation from inappropriate to under-the-skin discomfort.
Peckover does a remarkable job pulling the strings here, switching our alliances among the characters as they all reveal themselves and then pulling them back and forth as the plot live-wires out of control, bringing the tone up and down from Hughes satire to gender politics to macabre holiday romp. It’s a movie, and Peckover knows that audiences will root for almost anyone with a well-laid plan. The film’s third act is a confidently realized vision of movie conventions, using every visual and auditory trick in the book to steer us into a place that forces us to process what is happening and whose side we’re on.
To describe Better Watch Out as at times a blast, at times disquieting, at times thoughtful and at times wacky genre fun is a testament to the cocktail of tones it juggles without becoming a tacky mess. Peckover has his dynamite premise and manipulates the movie like a well-constructed clockwork that ticks toward locking each piece in place to build a unique spin on the home invasion thriller. It has a nasty kick to it, but it’s the difference between opening a box and finding a lump of coal in it vs. opening a box and that coal being spring-loaded to bounce out and smack us in the face. Better Watch Out is not a comedy, but it is a wickedly fun ride. They are cranking Christmas horror films out on a shoe-string budget lately – and this is one of the very few must-sees.