Director: Chris Peckover
Screenplay: Zack Kahn, Chris Peckover
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould
Runtime: 89 Minutes
‘Tis the season, and with it arrives a customary seasonal horror offering the likes of which rarely make a splash in mainstream cinemas anymore. Better Watch Out isn’t one that really uses its Christmas setting as a plot device or even to inform the story, but rather a visual backdrop to haunt the film with a merriment that keeps it a jolly and enjoyable romp contrary to its brutal content.
Beginning as a fairly traditional home invasion film, we follow Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) as her evening babysitting the young Luke (Levi Miller) and his friend Garret (Ed Oxenbould) takes a customary turn for the worst when it becomes apparent they are being terrorised by exterior forces trying to enter the house. That’s pretty much all that should be said regarding the plot, as it really does develop into something very twisted and unexpected very early on, and the joy comes from seeing the chaos unfold as established props setup become useful tools and weapons later on.
It plays with the formula of the psychological horror that derives from the urban legends of "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs" – see When a Stranger Calls or Black Christmas for closer reference points. Although feeling too on the nose meta about its tropes early on as a horror film in the background plays similar scenes to those unfolding like a parody, it thankfully never steps into full Scream territory. Instead, it’s more interesting watching how its youthful millennial characters react to such specific circumstances through the use of modern devices such as Wi-Fi and mobile phones, as well as the common sense that most might have to a situation before some terrific rug pull moments.
The young actors are game and talented, with Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould of The Visit reuniting and showing considerably more range. But it’s Levi Miller who surprises the most as a decidedly un-angelic precocious little sod who takes it upon himself to try and put the moves on his babysitter by wildly acting out before things even start going wrong. It's a great send up to an entitled and protected strata of first world children.
Director Chris Peckover has a lot of fun testing the boundaries of what he can get away with when there’s such a young cast at play, and beyond the mentions of movie literacy early on there are some unexpectedly gory pleasures in homage to other beats from films such as Home Alone that give it a clanging but subversive edge. It does reach a bit of a stretch when you stop to think about the logistics of just how elaborate the villain’s plan has turned out but it moves fast and is over quickly enough that it doesn’t totally distract.
Better Watch Out doesn’t rewrite any rules, but it plays with them in some dark and uncomfortable ways with a sharp script, handsome direction and even better performances. It’s just small enough to feel like a tight and self-contained exercise, even if the payoff feels a little less cathartic than expected.