Director Chris Peckover takes a classic horror set up, gives it a unique and thoroughly messed up twist… then wraps the whole lot in twinkly Christmas lights.
Luke Lerner (Levi Miller) is a twelve year old American school kid. It’s the Christmas holidays and snow lies thick on the ground. Like all the homes you ever see in American Christmas films, his house is massive and gorgeously decorated with festive lights, figurines and garlands. Luke has full roam of his spacious home, being an only child, and when he’s not playing computer games he’s hanging out with his best mate Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), talking about girls and arguing over the chances of those infamous paint cans in Home Alone causing more damage than just knocking intruders over.
One of the girls that Luke spends a lot of time talking about is Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). She’s five years older than Luke, pretty and fair… and about to leave for college. She’s been spending some time with a no-good boyfriend and decides to take a break and head back to her home town to see her family. First things first, though, the Lerner family have asked if she can babysit. Luke and Garrett chat excitedly about Ashley’s imminent arrival as Luke’s parents get ready for their night out. Luke reckons this is his big chance to impress the girl of his dreams. Shortly after everyone leaves, however, lovesick Luke and his babysitter appear to be the targets of a home invasion. They see silhouettes in the windows and hear an almighty crash from upstairs. A brick has been thrown through the bathroom window and written on the underside are the words, ‘U LEAVE, U DIE’.
Here’s what will happen when you finish watching Better Watch Out. You will stare bemused at the screen, wondering what the hell you just watched, half laughing at the crazy narrative and half impressed by its inventiveness. That’s because this is a film that has a weird fusion of both shit B movie acting and a well-orchestrated, genuinely shocking climax. The set-up is grim, but the pay-off is better than you would initially imagine. For a film that has all the hallmarks of a classic home invasion horror thriller, it takes an impressively original about-turn about 35 minutes in. This early shock twist shapes the rest of the film, but before it happens we are treated to some truly God awful acting and dialogue.
The film’s opening line sets the tone for the first act. Over the sound of a joyful Christmas carol, a young girl from the neighbourhood speaks fondly to ‘Mr. Frosty’, the snowman she has just made. Her brother promptly smashes its head with a baseball bat and legs it, yelling “bye, f**ker!” to his screaming little sister. The rest of the dialogue carries on in this vein, with Luke and Garrett saying some truly gross things about the opposite sex and the crass language continuing as Luke’s dad (played by the sorely underused Patrick Warburton) is the subject of unnecessary gay slurs from Luke’s mum (Virginia Madsen) because of a garish Christmas tie he’s decided to wear. Hilarious, as you can imagine.
The opening scenes are poor to say the least and the dialogue somehow manages to get more excruciating when babysitter Ashley is left alone with Luke. Not only does she have a set of thoroughly unconvincing phone calls with her needy boyfriend, she also tells Luke that he doesn’t need to impress her because she already thinks he’s pretty cool (unlikely, if you’re babysitting a sex crazed child who’s just cracked open a bottle of his parents’ champagne) and then goes on to tell him that, if she were his age, she’d date him. I would say that the film feels like a twelve year old’s wet dream, but that would be assuming that all twelve year olds were as creepily confident and persistent as Luke, who grabs Ashley’s thigh during a film, lights some candles and rests his head on her shoulder. Frankly, it felt more like the writers were living out some kind of messed up childhood fantasy. Come on, though, the babysitter? Now we know why these set up scenes have dialogue that wouldn’t sound out of place in porn.
The action itself starts off quite ‘horror by numbers’. Luke’s mum warns him not to stay up and watch horror movies, then Ashley searches through the unbranded digibox and selects ‘Horror’ in the list of genres. Because obviously. Then the pair of them start to hear footsteps and – oh yes – cling to each other for safety. The early ‘suspenseful’ shots of the snowy swing swaying in the breeze outside the house fail to add intrigue while some early attempts at jump scares don’t land… and then something happens.
A dismal film is given a second wind by a twist. It isn’t exactly a genius about-turn, but it’s certainly dramatic and unexpected and, most importantly, it gives the young cast the opportunity to shows off their acting chops. In the face of a perilous situation, Olivia DeJonge puts in an impressive performance while Levi Miller acts his heart out in a role that few actors his age would be likely to land. Suddenly it’s a film worth watching, even if it’s just to see how far the situation will escalate.
Writers Zack Kahn and Chris Peckover warp the classic ‘Christmas movie’, sprinkle in a bit of Home Alone, add a dollop of creepy underage lust and a big splash of the grotesque and mix is with a big ol’ phallic symbol (I don’t know, like a rolling pin or something?) to create Better Watch Out. It’s like nothing you’ve seen before but, for its many flaws, in that space between the twist and the credits, the film does somehow work.