Better Watch Out (2016)
You might be home, but you’re not alone.
First things first, due to the particulars of the plot and discussion, I believe a spoiler warning is necessary. If you’re looking for a basic, spoiler-free summary, check out the last paragraph of the review, but otherwise …
Christmas horror films — oh what fun! Could there be anything more subversive than taking the beloved holiday, with all its bright colors and fuzzy feelings, then turning it inside out with a spooky premise? For me, the golden template was set in 1984 with Joe Dante’s mini-monster movie Gremlins, which was fun, funny and a bit crazy. About a decade later we got the family-friendly stop-motion musical The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), while in more recent times, the dark mythology of Krampus (2015) offered up a stylish Yuletide diversion.
Now imagine mixing a classic home invasion into this holiday-themed formula — there’s something endlessly fascinating about the great unease that this type of premise can provoke, especially when it feels personal and relatable. Enter Better Watch Out, which, as other reviewers have noted, essentially picks out the Christmas motif, along with the resourceful kid from the Home Alone series, then plonks him into the deranged and darkly comical idea of Funny Games (2007) — an all-time home invasion fave of mine.
As the flick opens up, a familiar jingle tells us, ‘It’s that most wonderful time of the year’ in a quiet, hyper-real snowed out neighborhood — the film was shot in Australia but takes place in a snow-globe looking region in the States. Parents Deandra (Virginia Madsen) and Robert Lerner (Patrick Warburton) are readying themselves for a night out, while 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) is counting down the minutes with best mate Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) till his regular babysitter, 17-year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), arrives. See, Luke is hopelessly crushing on the pretty snowflake, and, with her impending college years just around the corner, it’s a case of fess up (quickly) or mess up.
As the night unfolds, things go from awkwardly romantic to unbearably tense, the uncomfortable evening eventually interrupted by a surprise visit from Garrett. Soon after, the threesome start noticing signs of looming intruders — strange phone calls and noises — an unknown assailant demanding the kids stay inside after throwing a brick through a window with a note that reads ‘U Leave. U Die.’ Now, with the trio trapped in the house for the night, and the true intentions behind the act slowly becoming clear, the real sadistic games begin.
Written by Chris Peckover and Zack Kahn and directed by Peckover, Better Watch Out could’ve chugged along nicely, done its bit, then concluded; but wait! There’s more! What if the very concept of a home invasion were inverted? In a nasty (and admittedly elaborate) twist, it turns out that Luke and geeky pal Garrett aren’t so innocent after all, the pair having set up a poisonous hoax in a desperate attempt to bring Ashley closer to the infatuated Luke (who’s still a virgin), this spinning the narrative down a similar path that’s best comparable to the twisted climax of Wes Craven’s original Scream (1996), in which two horror fans clumsily plot their final act.
Looking to the cast, the two lads at the center of it all may be familiar to anyone who’s been keeping up with Aussie family flicks (kinda weird, huh?). There’s Ed Oxenbould of Paper Planes (2014) fame delivering a fine, if undemanding turn as Garret, while Levi Miller, Red Dog: True Blue (2016), is given the dream gig in the character of Luke, who goes from naïve and sweet to uh, psychotic and naïve and a number of shades in between. With that said, there are moments where Miller doesn’t quite hit the mark (these are early on), but this could be screenwriter Kahn’s shonky attempts in exposition, which force the sinister craziness — some of ‘psycho Luke’s’ initial dialogue doesn’t sound right.
Then there’s Olivia DeJonge — who’s clearly a fan of horror, having worked on 2016’s Scare Campaign and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015), where she co-stared with Oxenbould. Although she’s okay when she’s portraying the pretty ‘girl next door’ in the setup, there’s not a lot for her to do once the film does a 180 — she’s basically relegated to sitting in a chair with ye olde duck tape over the mouth. Sure, DeJonge does what she can with the role, but it’s figuratively (and literally) a constrained part.
Now, while the narrative smartly reveals itself just as the audience may be catching on, I feel that there may’ve been more to milk out from the premise, particularly pre-‘invasion,’ where co-writer-director Peckover’s command of pacing and characterization is smooth and on point. Once the film shows its hand, it probably takes a little too long to readjust to its new skin. Moreover, it also becomes difficult to engage with the characters, seeing as Ashley is mostly muted, Luke’s a misogynist and Garrett enables his sadism — tough crowd, indeed. It thankfully picks up again with the introduction of Ashley’s partners — her current beau, Ricky (Aleks Mikic), and her ex, Jeremy (Dacre Montgomery), whose brief but hilarious swagger threatens to steal the show.
Speaking of show, with production design by Richard Hobbs, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and cinematography by Carl Robertson, The Osiris Child (2016), the images pop with all the vivid colors of the season, creating a juxtaposing atmosphere for all the carnage that ensues.
While initially slipping up on its way to establish its original concept, Better Watch Out — which was formerly titled Safe Neighborhood — still gets much of its intentions right, delivering a wild ride on the naughty side of Christmas. My biggest fear with the movie, though, is that it won’t get as much audience traction as it could have. It seems to have been poorly handled by the distributors, who sat on it for far too long, undersold it in marketing, ultimately dumping it into a bare few cinemas after Halloween, when the appetite for such films is low. Here’s hoping the on-demand market may eventually bring the humble film to a broader audience.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie