Saturday, December 23, 2017

12 Horrors of Christmas: 'Better Watch Out' (2017)

There was enough critical acclaim for Chris Peckover's breakout feature Better Watch Out that I had it on my list of 2017 films to catch up with for awards-voting and list-making purposes, not just to include in this feature about Christmas horror movies. While it won't make my top 10 list, it's still one of the better horror movies of the year, and certainly more unsettling and thought-provoking than one might expect from a Christmas-themed horror movie that essentially went straight to VOD. I came in with high expectations and was a bit disappointed, but anyone just looking for some basic low-budget horror would probably be pleasantly surprised.

There aren't a lot of scares in this movie (and there's almost no gore), but there is a lot of tension in the story that starts out as one kind of thriller before shifting gears a few times into completely different territory. At first it seems like it's going to be a more lighthearted, Christmas-themed version of a home invasion horror movie like The Strangers. Teen Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is babysitting 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) on some night close to Christmas (it's not clear when exactly), and while she's distracted by her impending move out of town and her bickering with her boyfriend, Luke and his dorky best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) appear to be hatching a plan to fake a robbery so that they can scare Ashley into Luke's arms (or something like that).

When the standard "something's in the house" action starts (doors mysteriously slamming and/or left open, shadowy figures outside, phone lines cut, etc.), it looks like the movie is hinting that the pair's plan has gone awry, and some actual killer has shown up to terrorize the poor kids. But after about 20 minutes of familiar (if effective) running and hiding around the house, Peckover switches gears: Ashley discovers the ruse, calls out Luke and Garrett for tricking her and threatens to get them in trouble, and then Luke turns complete psychopath, kidnapping Ashley for real and committing increasingly violent, unhinged acts while Garrett alternately protests and cheers him on.

There are other twists along the way, but the movie's main surprising development is that the seemingly sweet but misguided Luke is a full-on cold-blooded killer, and Miller is excellent at playing his sadistic acts in the same soft-spoken, nice-kid manner as the earlier more innocuous scenes. As many have pointed out, this movie is sort of like Funny Games meets Home Alone, with its faux-polite, fresh-faced young villain combined with the Christmas setting and the improvised violence around household items (at one point Garrett even explicitly references Home Alone). Luke is so evil and so self-assured that the movie threatens to undermine audience investment by basically allowing him to get away with everything, but Ashley is a worthy adversary who never gives up and isn't just an outlet for Luke's violent and sexual impulses.

Is Peckover criticizing male entitlement and toxic masculinity, or is he sort of celebrating it? It's hard to say for sure, but I think he does a good job of putting the cherubic Luke in typical teen-comedy situations (like having to clean up the house before his parents get home) that would have the audience rooting for him, only to throw in reminders that this is actually a sick, violent predator that we have been tricked into cheering on. It's a tough line to walk, and the movie doesn't always succeed. While the performances are strong, some of the violence gets repetitive, and it takes a little too long for Ashley and Garrett to push back against Luke's dominance and intimidation. Other than an amusingly nasty bit with carolers, the Christmas setting is almost irrelevant, and the final stinger turns Luke into too much of a joke when the movie spent so much time building up how dangerous he is. Still, there's far more thought and skill demonstrated here than is typical for this genre and budget, and Peckover will certainly be a filmmaker to watch as he takes on inevitably bigger projects.

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