Better Watch Out - A Silent Fright, Holy Fright Christmassy Review
Director: Chris Peckover
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic, Dacre Montgomery
Written by: Zack Khan, Chris Peckover
Produced by: Sidonie Abbene, Brion Hambel, Paul Jensen, Brett Thornquest
Cinematography by: Carl Robertson
Original Score by: Brian Cachia
On a quiet suburban street, a babysitter must defend a twelve-year-old boy from intruders, only to discover it's far from a normal home invasion.
It’s Christmas time and a huge, rich family house in a quaint US suburban neighbourhood is about to come under attack in a deranged home invasion. No it’s not ‘Home Alone’ (although there is a rather nasty nod to Macauley Culkin) it’s a fairly low budget Australian horror film that turns it’s own plot on its head and somehow manages to keep you on the edge of your seat right up until the last scene.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD OBVIOUSLY!
As home invasion movies go, this isn’t anywhere close to being as scary as Bryan Bertino’s ‘The Strangers’ or even Mike Flanagan’s ‘Hush’. Aside from a few cheap but highly effective jump scares early on (one of which is another nod to the Chris Columbus seasonal classic) ‘Better Watch Out’ plays out more like a psychological thriller that just keeps upping the ante with almost every scene after the major incident happens. And the major incident is what makes this film stand out from nearly every other entry in the home invasion horror sub-genre. It’s a huge twist that is a little hard to digest initially but with a bit of patience pays off with monumental satisfaction. It’s the kind of horror film that demands a reaction from it’s viewers and it feels like the characters would be as at home performing on a theatre stage as they are here behind the light of a camera.
Olivia DeJonge plays Ashley, a pretty 17 year old babysitter who accepts the job from the Lerner parents (Virginia Madsen & Patrick Warburton) to look after their 12 year old kid Luke (Levi Miller). Ashley’s been taking on this assignment for a few years now and we find out right off the bat that Luke is madly in love with her. Luke’s a soft spoken, bookish boy whose best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) is seen as a bad influence by his overbearing mother. With Ashley set to leave town soon Luke decides that tonight will be the night that he tries to seduce her as he may never get the opportunity again. With his parents gone Luke turns on the charm. What follows is some incredibly cringy and improper scenes involving Luke chugging down some champagne, lighting atmospheric candles, cuddling up beside Ashley and then eventually making his advances. Ashley instantly thwarts his physical proposals claiming it “the most inappropriate thing ever”. It’s a humorous set up but a bit painful to watch at times.
While Luke’s romantic sentiments are firmly being shut down, there’s something a little more sinister happening outside the house. Ashley begins to hear noises and man-size shadows appear at the windows. Within a few minutes a brick comes smashing through the window with an ominous warning written all over it “U Leave U Die''. Phone lines and wi-fi have been compromised and after initially thinking that Garrett (who has now joined them) was behind the disturbances the three realise that they are in horrendous danger when a masked gunman enters the house. Ashley’s protective instincts kick in and she does everything she can to keep Luke and herself safe from harm. But all is not what it seems.
The twist is revealed quite early on and the film decides to build on it instead of building up to it. Luke’s well mannered disposition is a facade and in actuality he is a deeply obsessed sociopath. He and Garrett are behind the “invasion”. An embarrassing attempt at spooking Ashley into some sort of gullible submission. Luke uses her supposed feminine vulnerability as an ignorant excuse to prove his desperate masculinity. It doesn’t work and Ashley angrily questions “What delusional infant thinks that staging a break-in is going to get you to second base?”. Unfortunately Ashley has no idea just how delusional Luke really is. Things get out of control and Luke ends up lashing out at Ashley causing her to take a tumble down the stairs. When she comes to, she's gagged and tied to a kitchen chair.
It seems far too unrealistic to be taken seriously but what helps to make it work is the performances from Miller, DeJonge and Oxenbould. Levi Miller’s commitment in particular is fascinating, at times coming across as a menacing mix between Norman Bates and Billy Loomis. Charming but obnoxious at the same time. Not only is he unapologetically creepy but he follows through on his threats, much to the chagrin of his partner in crime Garrett, who only thought this was supposed to be a prank.
As Luke continues to dig a deeper and much darker hole for himself and Garrett, which eventually leads to the unthinkable, the film becomes less fun to watch (in the traditional sense of the word) and more about wanting to see Luke make a mistake. Traditionally horror fans embrace the villains and enjoy the chaos that a masked killer or supernatural monster can inspire. It’s entertaining to both accept the violence and cheer on the protagonist, in this case the classic “final girl”. Not here though. There’s really nothing to enjoy about Luke’s antagonistic acts, which have clearly been planned out in advance despite a few bumps along the way. Luke is rich, entitled and pampered by his parents who think he can do no wrong. He’s an egomaniac who believes that he can take whatever he wants simply because he wants it. There’s just enough humour in the script (provided mainly by Garrett and his outlandish reactions) to keep this from turning into something truly horrific but Luke’s toxicity, especially when referring to anything sexual with Ashley, really isnt appealing to watch. There’s a moment when Garrett dares Luke to touch Ashley’s breast, we don’t see anything but it is excruciatingly uncomfortable even in its implication and again fantastic acting from DeJonge and Miller. I suppose it makes Luke even more of a villain but I can understand why some viewers may find this problematic and be turned off. In later scenes when Ashley’s current and former love interests are introduced the shit really hits the fan and we realise that there is no turning back for Luke. It takes the violence and consequences of ‘Home Alone’ and makes it very real.
Director Chris Peckover does an adequate job of somehow keeping the atmosphere of the film lighthearted by editing in Christmas songs and playful cuts towards the end in the aftermath of some deadly serious carnage. Although there is some cruel ambiguity which I guess is supposed to leave us wanting some more...and it succeeds.
- Gavin Logan