Review – Better Watch Out
Director: Chris Peckover
Writer(s): Zack Khan, Chris Peckover
Release Date: October 6, 2017
It’s a Christmas-themed home-invasion thriller that rather quickly reinvents itself as a deceptively novel and clever subversion of a Christmas-themed home-invasion thriller. It’s also incredibly tricky to review, because there’s a huge plot twist at the end of the first act that completely upends everything you thought you knew about the characters, their general nature and their prior behaviour.
Oh. What’s the plan, then?
As much as I’d like to spoil it just to talk about all the stuff I liked, I’ll refrain. The film has already been released in various territories, but it only hit streaming platforms in the U.S. earlier this month, and it might still see a timely theatrical release in December, which means that there’s a substantial untapped audience for Better Watch Out that I’d very much like to see it impress. You’ll excuse me, then, if this review is a little shorter than usual, but it’s for your own good.
Okay. What’re the basics?
The Lerners (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) are a squabbling middle-class suburban family in Anywhere, USA, who frequently leave their precocious 12-year-old son, Lukas (Levi Miller), in the care of his regular babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). You’d assume that the young lad would bristle at the necessity of a minder, but no – Ashley is a hottie, and Lukas, naively, believes she has a thing for him. We meet him in his bedroom – immaculate, full of expensive grown-up toys and the odd tell-tale childish leftover – concocting a scheme with his pothead chum, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), to confess his feelings for her and, hopefully, get his end away.
Lukas’s attempts at seduction are hilarious and squirm-inducing and vaguely, uncomfortably reminiscent of all your failed attempts to get laid as a teenager. He affects a slightly deeper voice (it still cracks into a squeal when he shouts) and a swaggering, tough-guy walk. He pops a bottle of his parents’ champagne and chugs it without a glass. Ashley’s reactions run the gamut from amused to bemused to appalled, and the very pretty DeJonge seems to draw from what I assume is a wealth of real-life experience with moronic young boys – and, let’s be frank, moronic not-so-young men.
This spectacularly awkward standoff is predictably interrupted by mysterious phone calls, signs of interior and exterior disturbance, and eventually the clear and present threat of menacing, masked, armed intruders.
That sounds pretty familiar.
Yeah, well, don’t get used to it. As phones and computers become conveniently unusable and rolls of duct tape start being unpeeled, Better Watch Out quickly and efficiently morphs into a wholly different type of experience. The director is Chris Peckover, and what he’s able to do with well-worn scenarios and tropes is fairly striking; the film has the glossy, seasonal veneer of family entertainment like Home Alone, replete with caricatured supporting characters (among them Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery as Ashley’s current and ex-boyfriends) and a soundtrack full of ironic Christmas cheer, but it descends into grimly serious moments that are impactful and often quite shocking without straying into the realms of exploitation and bad taste.
Oh. That sounds interesting.
It is. And it’s made even more so by a handful of solid performances, particularly from DeJonge and Miller. Both have a lot to play; it’s a tough gig, this, with the Aussie (last seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit) having to sell herself as both a determined protector and a gritty, resilient victim, and the Pan star serving up several courses of oddly effeminate strutting, macho posturing and childlike vulnerability. You’re expected to buy some character turns that are a bit of a stretch, but I guess that’s par for the course in a film with this one’s ambition.
Isn’t this a Christmas movie?
Ostensibly, but it’s more a send-up of traditional holiday fare. The film was shot in a Sydney studio, but it shakes the glossy suburban setting for an authentically over-the-top snow-globe effect. The picturesque family home is festooned with garish decorations; twinkling multi-coloured lights, rows of wire reindeers across the awning, and giant candy canes wedged into the fallen snow. It’s believable in its ridiculousness. The Lerners have that loveable compensatory festive spirit that you see a lot in light-hearted, mainstream Christmas comedies, and Brian Cachlia’s orchestral score, which effectively apes the sound of such things, makes you believe you might be watching one.
Believe me – you’re watching something else entirely.
What doesn’t work?
There are a few things, most of them either a consequence of the genre or the film’s own ambition. The screenplay by Zack Khan and Peckover requires a suspension of disbelief, especially as it descends into the more outlandish territory, and it’s littered with contrivances that aren’t all necessary. The central conceit of turning stock horror characters upside-down simply won’t offer enough novelty for some viewers, and for all the film’s effective shock tactics, if you fail to buy into the concept or the unlikely villain, then Better Watch Out doesn’t really offer anything beyond that.
Check it out if you can. So often moviegoers lament the lack of originality in genre filmmaking, seemingly without realising that by turning their noses up at stuff like Better Watch Out they’re hampering the ability of ambitious filmmakers to have their work made and distributed. It’s undeniably flawed and certainly not for everyone, but it’s a fun take on the seasonal slasher that is well-worth the time of anyone who’d like more blood and guts with their turkeys.
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