BETTER WATCH OUT is a non-supernatural, non-Killer-Santa Christmas horror movie with a fun feel to it, but with deeply uncomfortable undertones. Or maybe it’s overtones. In fact I’m gonna say it’s deeply uncomfortable overtones and undertones with just a thin layer in the middle of that fun feeling I mentioned. It’s not particularly gruesome or anything, it’s just that the psychology of the villainy is fucked up in a way that got under my skin. There is a physical threat, but it’s more about creeping you out that there are people out there who think like this.
It mostly stars the youths. There’s the kid that played Peter Pan in PAN (Levi Miller) and the two kids from THE VISIT (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould). There are other characters, like Patrick Warburton (THE WOMAN CHASER) and Virginia Madsen (CANDYMAN) as the parents of Miller’s character, but much of the movie is just between those three kids.
Ashley (DeJonge) is the Lerner family’s beloved sixteen year old long time babysitter, taking care of twelve year old Luke (Miller) one last time before moving out of town. The kid has a crush on her and wants to use this last chance to try to win her over, as he’s confessed to his smart ass video game playing friend Garrett (Oxenbould).
Babysitting is obviously a natural setup for horror – this is why we have HALLOWEEN, working title THE BABYSITTER MURDERS. Here we have an ordinary, relatable situation where a child is granted temporary adult status. Ashley is still in school, trying to navigate the emerging complications of boys, and to make the decisions and preparations that will lead to her future as an adult. Despite being at this fragile stage she’s entrusted with the most basic responsibility of adulthood: protecting the young.
Since we kind of know what type of movie this is we know some bad shit is gonna go down and we know the disadvantage she’s at. She’s in charge but not a real grown up, she’s in someone else’s house, she’s been there but doesn’t know where everything is. And, hell, even if it’s your own house it’s scary to feel like there’s an unknown threat outside in the dark somewhere, someone threatening you but you don’t know who or why. (Think of the opening of SCREAM.)
That’s the fear that comes up when a brick comes through the window. It could be from anybody, and the message “U leave U die” could mean a couple different things. Does it mean stay in the house or I will shoot you? Does it mean Ashley, don’t move? As a teenage girl she’s a honeytrap for creepos. She has an ex she’s trying to get off her ass, the kids think she’s hot, the dad flirts with her. And didn’t it look like a car followed her after that minor traffic incident earlier? Not to mention we don’t know anything about the parents except that they seem to be drunks. Who knows what kind of enemies they might have?
This is a CODE RED SPOILER WARNING. The movie intentionally misleads, and now I’m gonna start discussing what it’s really about. As young Luke takes charge, protecting his older crush from a ski-masked gunman, I started getting a sinking feeling. Oh shit, these boys are playing a prank, aren’t they? This is their ploy to impress a girl. This is pretty gross.
I mean I was already skeezed out by him drinking his parents’ champagne and managing to get her to drink with him too. That is poor babysitter judgment. A fireable offense. But when she figures out it’s Garrett under the mask and this is a setup she curses the little bastards out. Shockingly, little Luke slaps her, she falls down the stairs, and wakes up duct-taped to a chair with the kid trying to get her to play truth or dare with him.
So this little boy, so fresh-faced and innocent looking that the actor will star in Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME, is actually a little psycho who doesn’t deserve any sympathy we might’ve had for him at the beginning when it seemed like he would be the protagonist. That’s kind of the mischievous part of the movie, that it normalizes the way these boys talk about impressing a girl, acts like it’s supposed to be cute, then lets its real feelings be known.
Luke is not even old enough to see THE RING and already believing he’s entitled to choose women to be his possessions against their will. If they reject him he will punish them. I know misogyny is as old as time, and that his attitudes are a reflection of the passes-for-innocent jokes his dad makes, and that each generation of parents tries to sound the air raid sirens about jazz or comic books or TV or heavy metal or role playing games or violent movies or rap music being a negative influence on their kids. But to me this seems like a scarily accurate depiction of the way some kids see the world now that dumb boy attitudes and “locker room talk” are amplified 24-7 through social media and Youtube videos and anonymous people talking shit through their video game headsets. Kids today can be influenced by online manly men wannabes and pseudo-intellectual anti-feminist creeps in fedoras and their parents are gonna have no idea because what the fuck is that shit, why would they keep up on what that even is? But the kids know. In fact, at the beginning when we think he’s innocent Luke has some pickup artist tips he found somewhere and he quotes from them like they’re self help.
All of these kids are really good in the roles. Skinny little Miller feels unnervingly real, and Oxenbould gives a pretty sympathetic portrayal of a dumbass who gets in too far with his buddy and starts to have regrets. Kudos to him for not rapping at all. If you didn’t see THE VISIT it’s quite good but this kid raps in it like he’s auditioning for the BULWORTH prequels and I don’t think any of us will ever quite recover.
And DeJonge has a Kristen Bell-like spunk. She’s a good Final Girl while really seeming like a young babysitter with the physical limitations of being a small human. She finds her toughness but she doesn’t turn into Sarah Connor at the first sign of danger.
It’s a well-made thriller with a good sense of escalation and suspense. The plan gets more complex as Luke starts luring in the boys in Ashley’s life, another sign of a shitty possessive guy obsessing over the people a girl chooses instead of him. Also, one of them is Dacre Montgomery, the Red Ranger from the recent POWER RANGERS movie. Meanwhile Ashley tries various plans of escape, and Garrett could potentially decide to help her.
As the title implies, BETTER WATCH OUT takes place around Christmas. It has a tree and carolers and everything, but the themes are not in keeping with celebrating the birth of Christ through gift-giving. I mean, I guess it does relate to that in that it’s about a kid who’s naughty and will not be getting the present he asked Santa for. And come to think of it it’s kind of a response to perennial holiday favorite HOME ALONE, but the precocious kid is supposed to scare you instead of charm you. There’s even a scene where he tries to drop a paint can on a guy’s head to prove that it’s more dangerous than it appears in the movie. Doing his own Mythbusters I guess. It would be cool if he also did the tongue on the pole thing from A CHRISTMAS STORY and jumped out a window with a fire hose tied to him like in DIE HARD and haunted Michael Caine like in THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and etc.
This is the second movie by director Chris Peckover. His first was UNDOCUMENTED (2010).
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.