“Ah, ah, ah, I didn’t say talk. You talk when I tell you.”
Halloween meets Christmas in Chris Peckover’s new horror film, Better Watch Out. Though it appears to be in the vein of 2015’s Krampus, Better Watch Out has nastier things on its mind. Like Krampus, this film starts off with a subversion of the heart-warming holiday festivities. Deandra (Virginia Madsen) and Robert (Patrick Warburton) Lerner are feuding about what they should wear for the Christmas office party and the holiday decor. Outside, families are playing in the snow to the tune of Joy To The World. But there lies a cruelty beneath the jolly soundtrack.
The picturesque scene of a little girl building a snowman is interrupted when a boy takes the snowman’s head clean off with an aluminum bat. Killers–like that little boy–rarely snap; they plan, they bide time, they wait for the right moment. Unfortunately for Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), that moment is her last babysitting job for the Lerners at 312 Claremont Street. Her ward for the evening is Luke (Levi Miller), a teen in the throes of early puberty. Ashley is moving away and tonight is Luke’s last chance to tell Ashley how he feels. His pal Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) has doubts about any plan to woo that includes pizza and horror movies.
Luke’s romantic overtures come to a screeching halt when a brick comes through the window saying “U leave U die.” Ashley is more than capable of handling her own. Like the long line of Final Girls before her, she is qualified to tackle whatever psychotic behavior that comes her way. Avoid any promotional materials for Better Watch Out though, there are surprises in store in this home invasion that are better left to find in the theatre.
The script by Peckover and Zack Kahn delves into the profile of a deranged narcissist, whose roots in misogyny and entitlement run deep. The internet has brought many things into society, some pleasant, but the disconnect and relative morality of the online world also create monsters beyond our imagination. For this reason, the second act of Better Watch Out can be excruciating, but your mileage will vary. This certainly isn’t escapist fare for the horror crowd. Much of the value of the film hinges on the intellectual pursuit of analyzing privilege, but only if one can stand how vicious it is. Otherwise, a majority of the film is lacking in suspense and values irony over creating a mood of horror. A scene recreated from Home Alone to horrifying results can attest to that.
One applauds Peckover and Kahn for flipping so many conventions of horror (the absence of parents, babysitter’s boyfriends making appearances, and, of course, puppy love) onto their head. By that same token, they were perhaps too comfortable taking sentiments to an extreme. “Carol of the Bells” will definitely prompt some unpleasantness the next time it plays on the radio. If Better Watch Out lives on to the cult classic status festival reactions suggest, it will be because of Olivia DeJonge (of The Visit fame) and Levi Miller, who are the standouts of the picture. In a month where the seventh Saw film will premiere, and hokey premises all hope to cash in before Halloween, Better Watch Out is refreshing, but will require a specific type of filmgoer to enjoy it.