Synopsis – On a quiet suburban street, a babysitter must defend a twelve-year-old boy from intruders, only to discover it’s far from a normal home invasion.
My Take – As I revealed in my review of the Netflix Original film ‘The Babysitter’ a while back, we seem to be re-entering the phase of setting of baby sitters in horror films, this Chris Peckover directorial, right from the trailers also seemed like a film which would be in the same vein or at least features a home invasion where the would-be victims changed the situation on the invaders. While the film does start out as a typical (and bland) home invasion film, and then with an unexpected twist, the whole film turns upside down. Personally, I did not realize the scope of the insanity that was about to unfold. Sure, the trailer gives you a hint but not enough to be certain of the twist to come, and even then, you still don’t believe that things are going to get as out of hand as they do. Imagine, if you mixed the 1990’s comedy Home Alone with 2008’s thriller The Strangers, you’d have the makings of this horror thriller, a rather surprising hybrid film, which delightfully shifts gears & blurs into which genre it actually fits. Originally titled Safe Neighborhood, this film will likely become an enduring cult favorite with how attuned director Chris Peckover and his co-writer, Zack Kahn, are to the nonsense of Christmas films and the perverse fantasies of adolescent boys. From the shockingly raunchy dialogue to the ironic yuletide pop songs that are just perfect, this film is a fun kind of nasty & they do a great job providing a firm hold of what were used to seeing in horror, quickly setting us up to take the bait.
Set in a quiet American suburb on a snowy evening during Christmas season, the story follows Luke (Levi Miller), a 12-year-old boy hanging out with his best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), waiting for his 17-year old babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) to arrive. As his parents (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen) are leaving for a holiday party, Luke has stirring desires that he intends to act on as Ashley is about to move out of town, so, despite the age-and-maturity gap, Luke plans to make his move. While, Ashley may have the smarts to brush off Luke’s advances, she clearly wasn’t prepared for defending him from strangers who are seemingly trying to break into the house. However, she comes to discover that this is far from a normal home invasion. What starts off as a typical home-invasion thriller soon embraces a delightful twist and turns the film on its head. The adolescent innocence that we perceived for the first half an hour is marvelously subverted as the film begins to exhibit undercurrents of a dark, twisted thriller – one that makes you laugh as well, thanks to some insanely perverse ideas / questions that the protagonist wants to know clear-cut answers for. Somehow, almost every element of this film worked for me, it’s funny, it has legitimately suspenseful sequences, and effective gross-out gore. The Christmas themed production design gives the film a fun feel; while a lot of home invasion films take place in darkness and cramped spaces, this film is shiny and colorfully-lit. There’s a lot packed into this almost 90-minute film and while it’s definitely firmly set in the “silly-horror” genre, and isn’t particularly graphic, it delivers enough in the horror aspect to make you anxious and, at times, appalled. This film is very difficult to talk about without giving away a major twist that occurs at the end of the first act, about half an hour in. It sends the film off in a completely unexpected direction, taking what at first appeared to be a home-invasion film along the lines of The Strangers and elevating it to something else entirely. It’s better to go in knowing nothing at all, so if you can avoid the trailers (which are absurdly spoiler-filled) and seek this out, do so. The trailer might be very misleading for a lot of people, because this isn’t your typical Home Invasion film, it has so many twists and turns that it could lead to disappointment for some, but for others it could really impress and for me it really impressed. Like I mentioned before, it’s told in a very Home Alone kind of style except this isn’t a family Film. It takes a lot of the old film clichés and makes it into its own original film. It wouldn’t be wrong to describe this film as a horror-comedy, the transfixing product ultimately more akin to a frightener with devastatingly morbid touches. Replete with allusions to Home Alone to which it has been predictably ascribed, a more explicit acknowledgement of its thematic roots in the film’s latter half arrives as one of this film’s best and most macabre innovations.
We’re cued to anticipate something nasty, but for as long as possible director Peckover avoids revealing just what form it will take. What eventuates is both familiar and unexpected – riffing in particular on Home Alone, a classic Christmas family comedy with a premise that could easily be repurposed for a “home invasion” horror-thriller. Even after the main surprise is sprung, the actors are able to keep us guessing about what their characters might be capable of. Writer Zack Kahn & co-writer and director Chris Peckover clearly knows their way around both the holiday and horror genres, and while this isn’t the first time someone has blended the two, it is one of the more-effective efforts as it is both scary and fun, especially if your idea of fun involves occasional gore and torture, and things like that. Sneaking around the film’s budget wherever possible, writer-director Chris Peckover finds himself in the mood for a scare but missing the usual clichés of a horror master, while showcasing a number of memorable artistic choices while slipping on the bodily fluids excreted by his various characters. Like all horror films, you should be ready for anything, but in terms of what’s shown on-screen, this film really doesn’t overdo it in terms of gore. There are films that rely on gore to sell the film, but this film only shows it when the story requires it to, which was a nice change of pace in comparison with the majority of horror films nowadays. With the combination of restrained gore and the addition of solid cast, I can see horror fans getting a kick out of this film. While the film is more cartoonish than psychologically believable, it’s willing to go to some genuinely uncomfortable places. It’s also a technical showcase for Peckover, who unlike most modern directors has a gift for using the widescreen format in ways that are dynamic rather than decorative – such as when a character in one part of the frame is oblivious to a threat lurking elsewhere. I think my main problem with this film is that it didn’t really need to be a Christmas film. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a good Holiday Horror film and I figure serial killer-psychos can like Christmas too, so bring on the Yuletide terror, but other than wanting to reference Home Alone that one time, nothing really screamed Christmas in this film, again, I fall back on the idea that the paint can gag was the catalyst for the whole thing. The film also maintains a pace that will satisfy many viewers, but the plot of this film will most likely anger certain audience members. I found myself cringing at certain elements, wondering how I could possibly be enjoying what was unfolding in front of my eyes, but this film is made in such a way that just ends up being applaudable. However, an important fact remains that it’s the uniformly even performances from the three main characters that holds the film together. Levi Miller is carving out a nice career for himself. Here he does a good job creating a twisted persona. Olivia DeJonge is no slouch either, both strong-willed and vulnerable in her latest role. Ed Oxenbould makes his character most relatable as he is manipulated into doing things for his supposed best-friend. It’s good to see Oxenbould and DeJonge reunite after the M. Night Shyamalan hit, The Visit. In supporting roles, Aleks Mikic, Dacre Montgomery, Patrick Warburton & Virginia Madsen are also good. On the whole, ‘Better Watch Out’ is a twisted and interesting horror film that deserves attention for its entertaining diversion from the usual home-invasion flicks.
Directed – Chris Peckover
Rated – R
Run Time – 89 minutes