Christmas. The time of year to spread joy and spend time with the ones you love. It’s also a time to sit down and cuddle up and watch a good holiday movie, from the many version of A Christmas Carol to modern holiday films like Scrooged, Elf, Love Actually and even Gremlins. But the 1970s introduced a new genre of holiday fare when the notorious Black Christmas made its debut as one of the first, if not the first, holiday horror films (as well as being considered the first slasher film). Since then, tales of killer Santas have popped up over the decades and the newly released Better Watch Out seems to fit that bill. But …
Better Watch Out isn’t a movie that’s easily reviewed because the story goes off in a direction that shouldb’t be ruined before you see it. The basic premise finds young Luke (Levi Miller), a kid just entering his teens who his parents (played by Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen) don’t think is old enough to be left alone when they’re out at a Christmas party (he’s had issues with sleepwalking). His long-time babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), whose family is preparing to move away in just a couple of days, comes to sit with Luke one last time. Luke has told his friend Garrett that he is in love with the older Ashley and he is for sure going to make out with her that night. But as they settle down to have some snacks and watch a movie, the terror begins as a shadowy figure first appears outside the window and then gets into the house. And it’s not Jolly Old St. Nick this time.
And that’s just the first half hour of the movie. We’ll remain mum on the rest as things take a decidedly unpleasant turn (we will say at one point Luke gets to demonstrate how a full paint can would actually impact someone not in a Home Alone movie). And while the story did disturb me, it really is a more original take on the holiday horror film than we’ve seen in a while. And what really makes it all work is the extremely talented cast of young actors (who, by the way, are Australians doing pretty spot-on American accents) who completely embody their characters. And they’re all right around the ages of their on screen characters, which makes their work even more remarkable.
Olivia DeJonge is the perfect girl next door, the babysitter any young boy would want to stay with them while mom and dad are out. She shows genuine affection for Luke even though he misinterprets that care for desire. That’s on him, not her. Later, she finds herself in a situation where she can’t talk and has to do all of her acting with her eyes basically and she totally pulls it off. Ed Oxenbould plays Garrett, the nerdy best friend, and he seems like a real kid. He’s Luke’s best friend and would do anything for him, but he thinks Luke is a little out of his league with Ashley. Oxenbould takes what could have been a really annoying stereotype and endears him to the viewer, investing us in his safety as the horrors progress. There are smaller performances by Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery as Ashley’s ex-boyfriends, and they do fine with their limited screen time, although Mikic doesn’t nail the accent as well as the others. Montgomery will be recognizable to fans of Stranger Things.
Madsen and Warburton only appear at the open and close of the film and they’re fine, but they’re here for name appeal only. Levi Miller is the star of this film, hands down. He plays the 13-year-old full of puppy love for his babysitter perfectly and his character takes some surprising twists over the course of the movie that are mighty impressive for a kid actor to pull off. Miller was 14 at the time the movie was filmed but his acting skills will have you convinced he’s much older. Actually, the three main leads all give performances well beyond their years and help make any unpleasantness in the story bearable. The film is directed with great skill by Chris Peckover, who only has one other feature to his credit (Undocumented), and he allows the viewer to imagine more of the horrors that take place rather than show all the blood and gore on screen (like with that paint can gag). The film’s editing also keeps the action moving, and the cinematography is also quite nice for a film that’s basically set inside a house (and the set itself is pretty amazing once you see it in the “making of” feature).
The Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic, with the image nicely balancing scenes in the house where the is warm lighting or multi-colored Christmas lights with scenes that take place in dark areas like the attic. Sounds is crisp and clear as well. Instead of being loaded with bonus material, the disk contains one real extra, the “Makaing Of”, and two trailers (a General Audiences version and a Red Band version). For a film like Better Watch Out, the “Making Of” supplement is quite in-depth, clocking in at just under 53 minutes. The feature includes a very comprehensive dialog from director Peckover who guides us through the film’s pre-production and production with a lot of behind-the-scenes footage (including the construction of the massive house interior), as well as extolling the virtues of his young cast who also participate in the feature. It is certainly a nice companion piece to the film (and was shot while the movie was still called Safe Neighborhood, a dreadful and rightfully changed title) … but one you should only watch after the movie.
If you want something a little different, a little twisted to take in this holiday season, Better Watch Out may be just what you’re looking for.
Well Go USA generously provided Hotchka with a Blu-ray of the film for reviewing purposes.