Seasonal horror films are looked at differently, graded in a different light. Because of seminal classics such as Black Christmas (1974), Halloween (1978), and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), and even newer age staples like Trick r’ Treat (2007) and Krampus (2015), the holiday horror film is revered in the community. Approaching these movies is a dangerous outing as the scale seems to be more harsh but luckily, Chris Peckover and Zack Kahn are able to craft a masterpiece with Better Watch Out (2016).
The plot needs to be discussed moderately but any further delving will ruin the movie. A young girl is about to leave for college and has one last gig babysitting an upper-class families son that she has known for years. In the midst of breakup, she begins the night dealing with her own drama before a home invasion sets in that turns the night on it’s head. As the plot unfurls, it may seem familiar, and then a revelation will occur and you will think you have figured it out. That’s exactly when Better Watch Out switches gears and veers into a new territory that sets it apart from anything else like it.
It’s truly incredible what Peckover and Kahn are able to do on what is essentially their first big outing into film. Kahn has a handful of MAD T.V. episodes under his belt and Peckover has a single found footage thriller that came out over half a decade ago. Watching this film, it would be easy to see this coming from vets of the genre and to discover it’s from relative newcomers is mindblowing.
It’s apparent that they’re fans, the passion is palpable, and it will only leave the viewer want more from both parties. Kahn’s script dances around playfully between dark humor and tense thriller, with healthy sprinkles of humor dashed in, and what could have been a tonal disaster instead delivers itself as a deft and highly entertaining genre gem. Kahn handles the script expertly, creating engaging characters with the main protagonist and antagonist but also allowing the ancillary characters to provide plot progression, lead character development through their lines and action, and some really brutal violence. Kahn is working in a genre that has been explored over and over again, he’s hitting on the same beats that many writers before him have. Exploring maturation and the doorway into adulthood by throwing the characters through a brutal gauntlet. Kahn defies expectations though and manages to bring a new and refreshing take to the screen, with sharp witted and devilishly clever leads.
Chris Peckover has the potential to be a big voice in the horror industry. Although the script from Kahn is master class, in different hands, this could have proven a nightmarish jumbled mess. Peckover performs movie magic by juggling the hyper-violence with sly interjections of overly jolly Christmas tropes. It’s never overt, almost done subliminally to balance the grim subject matter with an offbeat Amblin tone that prevails throughout the entire film.
The pacing is slick and the film never slows down, staggering peaks of explosive violence are interspersed with some of the most gut twisting bits of humor that will leave you laughing with hesitation and anxious, unsure if this is something to be enjoyed or offended by. What proves that Peckover is successful is that he straddles this line with razor thin precision but never crosses into unwatchable territory and instead keeps the viewer intrigued and entertained. If this entry is anything to judge by, Peckover is set to be a heavy contender in the director’s chair.
The cast is superb. Olivia DeJonge plays Ashley, the lead, a pretty typical girl who is making the transition from high school to college and Levi Miller is Luke, the young boy she’s babysitting who is also is a transitionary period, coming into full realization of his feelings towards his longtime babysitter. Ed Oxenbould reunites with his The Visit co-star and plays Garrett, Luke’s impressionable best friend, while Dacre Montgomery and Aleks Mikic play former boyfriends Jeremy and Ricky, respectively. Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen have supplemental roles as Luke’s parents that are fleeting but they have a lot of fun with very little screen time. Warburton proves as an almost perfect paradoxical embodiment of the offbeat humor the movie is shooting for.
Dacre Montgomery and Aleks Mikic serve a purpose, to play the bad boy that the good girl likes, and they do the best they can with what they’re given. Oxenbould does a great job, playing a best friend seeking for approval at almost whatever cost. His wide eyed, open mouth awe is so well serving in the role that he stands out as a believable timid teenager. DeJonge shines in her role. She’s instantly likeable and relatable and is the best version of every female protagonist horror fan’s love. She’s smart, resourceful, and resilient and she plays this all with a natural ease. She plays the role close to the chest, you’ll swear you can see the cogs in her head clicking along, and has a genuine vulnerability that suits her character perfectly. The role that is near-perfect is Levi Miller. He is scathingly real. The script takes his character into some interesting places and Miller embraces the role so wholeheartedly that it sells the movie, he steals nearly every scene that he’s in. It’s a powerful and commanding performance that is only bolstered by the strong supporting cast and impressive screenplay.
The movie is bundled up tight as a tried and true home invasion flick and then creatively twists and turns itself into something else entirely. It’s grim but a lot of fun with an overly competent cast and script that is wickedly smart and skilfully captivating. The film is guaranteed a spot on every fan’s “must watch” holiday list but is so crafty that it subverts its own role and will sneak its way into the broader spectrum of horror, outside of the seasonal bend. Better Watch Out is Spielberg meets Ti West in the coolest way possible.