The thriller-horror genre has a multitude of subgenres, and some of my personal favorites are the holiday-related ones: movies set during a specific day or holiday that take full advantage of their setting to make them feel much more fresh and disturbing. You’ve got everything from April Fools Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, Halloween, Easter, and even Thanksgiving. The most prolific and deadly holiday is, however, Christmas: starting with 1974’s Black Christmas by Bob Clark, there have been hundreds of movies set during the most wonderful time of the year, from a killer Santa in Silent Night, Deadly Night, evil little creatures in Gremlins, killer snowman in Jack Frost, and the anti-Claus in 2015’s Krampus. The recently released Better Watch Out, directed by Chris Peckover and co-written with Zack Kahn, not only is a great Christmas thriller, but also a solid dark comedy and a great addition to the subgenre of ‘evil kids’.
The story takes place during Christmas night: a married couple (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen) goes out of town to celebrate with some friends, and leave their 12-year old son Luke (Levi Miller) in the company of his 18-year old baysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). Luke is in love with Ashley, and, since she will be leaving very soon to move to Pittsburgh, this is his last chance to hook up with her. Things start out fairly smoothly, but they quickly escalate when Luke’s best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) comes uninvited, and when the house is seemingly under attack by armed figures.
The premise does feel very familiar at first glance, and after the recently released Netflix-distributed dark comedy The Babysitter by McG, they look eerily similar. However, there is much more than meets the eye. I have watched over 1800 movies in my life, and Better Watch Out managed to surprise me from start to finish. The tone, at first, is very light-hearted, introducing us to the characters and the location, and then slowly gets more dark, with unexpected twists and turns (both in plot and themes) that made for a thoroughly entertaining watch that also delivered in being uncomfortable and thrilling.
The filmmakers got (relatively) lucky with the release of this film: since the first days of October, a multitude of people (mainly women) in the entertainment business have spoken up about instances of sexual harassment and assault that they received by the hand of different personalities, from film producers to politicians. The story in Better Watch Out can easily be seen as a metaphor for the current situation: Ashley represents every woman who has ever been objectified and mistreated, while Luke is every insecure man who tries to show off his masculinity by physically overcoming and overpowering women they are attracted to, forcing themselves upon them. This makes for a rather (purposefully) uncomfortable watch that feels more relevant than I expected it to be.
The set and overall production design feels like your typical Christmas-y house, with decorations, trees and Santa statues everywhere. Different props that are holiday-specific are wonderfully used and never neglected, taking full advantage of its setting. The cinematography is very competent, with great use of lighting and close-ups that heighten the tension and make you feel as if you were captive like our hero. The acting from everyone is terrific: Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (who already starred together in The Visit) prove once again how good they are, but it is Levi Miller’s descent into madness and disturbing behaviour that makes this a memorable film.
Overall, Better Watch Out is a fantastic Christmas thriller that is deeper than expected, funnier than I imagined, and more intense than anticipated. An instant holiday classic, and one that puts you in the perfect mood for celebrating the magic of the holiday spirit.
Visual Effects: 8.5
Violence & Gore: 8.5
Sex & Nudity: 6.5
Drugs & Profanity: 7
Intensity & Horror: 8.5