BETTER TAKE SCARE
BETTER WATCH OUT (15)
Director: Chris Peckover
Screenplay: Zack Kahn
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould
Review: David Stephens
The trouble with seasonal horror films is that whatever the quality, they’re only going to hit the sweet-spot and be really relevant for a short time each year. You can watch “Halloween” (any version or sequel) and “Trick R’ Treat” all year round, but there’s a special frisson if you watch them in October. This is also noticeable for Christmas genre, as you get a much more of a kick watching “A Christmas Horror Story” or “Silent Night” with the sounds of carols trilling in the background and a decorated tree next to the TV. But if it gets a theatrical release in December, then the film is going to inevitably turn up on home media around springtime. That happened with “Krampus” in 2016, and it’s happening again with “Better Watch Out”, which is a twisted tale of Christmas Present. Originally premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2016, it then headlined at 2017 Frightfest, before getting a limited UK cinema release (appropriately) in December of that year. Now it’s on VOD and DVD in Blighty, so YGROY shakes it’s Jingle Hells and takes a look in our shockings…
It’s Christmas and 17-year old Ashley (the talented Olivia DeJonge from Shyamalan’s “The Visit”) is on her way to babysit for the Lerner family. Luke (Levi Miller from “Pan” and “Wrinkle in Time”) is the 12 year-old boy looking forward to her visit, and has a lot in common with plenty of hilariously deluded boys of that age, as he has a severe crush on Ashley and thinks he may be able to make out with her that night. As his parents (the great coupling of Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen as Robert and Deandra) leave for the evening, Luke settles down on the sofa with Ashley in front of a (lame) horror film, and clumsily attempts to impress her by chugging champagne and flirting. She ignores this behaviour for the most part as she’s distracted by a textual argument with her boyfriend. After a heated exchange with her bae on the mobile phone, the babysitter and her charge get some sinister messages and hear noises outside. It’s not long before they suspect that they may have been targeted for a home invasion by unknown parties. Soon the night descends into an unexpected night of Christmas carnage that nobody expected. “Home Alone” this ain’t…
It’s hard to write an appreciation of BWO without giving the game away and revealing a major plot development. But it is a doozy and very well played out, just about walking the tightrope of credibility and preposterousness. It lives or dies by that to be honest, and it will affect the way you may watch it on re-views. But the whole film is savvy enough and has a clever script to hold it all together. It does mean that we have to hold off on describing some of the best moments though… but them’s the breaks. Suffice to say that the trailers are a masterclass in withholding the major details, and some of the studios could learn a serious lesson from them instead of inserting John-Connor-is-a-Terminator scenes into early teasers. You aren’t getting a gory “Silent Night” type slasher here, but a subtle blending of “Scream”-type shenanigans and the wholesome seasonal films that you would expect flood the TV channels during December. But yeah… it is pretty twisted.
What we can say is that both DeJonge and Miller are absolutely excellent as the leads, as are the rest of the cast around them. The narrative plays with horror tropes such as the shadow at the window, the lack of mobile signals/phone connections, clever camera angles, macguffins, effective jump-scares, misdirection, etc, etc. There’s also a knowingly snarky screenplay with some nice lines (“If you’re really watching me, how many fingers am I holding up?”) and the extravagant use of multiple F-bombs. It also manages to perform that complicated trick of knowing when to switch from dark humour to genuine unpleasantness that becomes uncomfortable to watch. There are some moments that do feel a little awkward with the current mood in Hollywood, but the actors involved are talented enough to ride that out and take it to the logical conclusion. At any rate, genre fans who have grown up with “Home Alone” (and “Mythbusters”) will find some sequences to love here and as a whole it does feel like a film that’s wrong to like… but you end up doing that anyway.
Oddly enough for a seasonal genre film, the actual time period feels a little superfluous. The events depicted could have easily occurred at any time of the year, and although the film was always set at Christmas, it was actually called “Safe Neighbourhood” right up until the moment it was released. The obvious songs and carol singers are there, but unlike “Krampus” and similar films, it doesn’t actually gain that much from watching it during the festive weeks. But director Chris Peckover (who also co-wrote) has produced a film that turns goodwill on its head somewhat. It becomes a sort of character study in the long run, but not in the way you expect. It does live up to its reputation though, and also ends on a neat and satisfying sting.
The sense of realism is stretched at times (although life feels like that sometimes, so who are we to judge) but it always remains compelling and takes some directions you may not be anticipating for a film of this type. In summary, BWO is certainly not your atypical Christmas slasher, but is a festive-ish genre treat that plays with expectations. For best results, switch this DVD with an aged relative’s copy of “Home Alone”, and watch their jaws drop. Good un-merry fun that you should catch and enjoy at least once. Oh, and kudos to Universal for including a decent meaty documentary as an extra on the UK DVD. That happens so infrequently these days, Christmas or not…
DVD Extras: “Red Christmas” - An excellent 50 documentary that goes behind the scenes and explains how the film originated, with interviews with cast and crew. Whatever you do, don’t watch it before seeing the film though!