Studio: Well Go USA
Director: Chris Peckover
Writer: Zack Kahn, Chris Peckover
Producer: Brett Thornquest, Brion Hambel, Sidonie Abbene, Paul Jensen
Stars: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic, Dacre Montgomery, Patrick Warburton, Virginia Madsen
A preteen boy and the babysitter he has a crush on find their suburban home beset by unknown intruders during the holidays.
I was intrigued, albeit skeptical, when I heard about film fans anxiously adding “Better Watch Out” to the list of worthy horror hits for annual viewing each holiday season. “Gremlins,” “Black Christmas” (review here), “Krampus” (review here), and “Silent Night, Deadly Night” are elite company. Carving new faces on their merrily macabre Mount Rushmore should not be proposed lightly.
Having seen it myself, I can confidently join the declaration that “Better Watch Out” at least earns such consideration. Sharp acting, sharp production design, and sharp directing, all of which this movie possesses in spades, rarely dull their edges on repeat watches. Seeing those elements shine in this scenario is unlikely to get old no matter how many times the film plays every December.
The tricky twists of its story, on the other hand, mean no one will have a better experience with “Better Watch Out” than on the first time through. Less foreknowledge equals more value here. Do yourself a favor, avoid trailers like the proverbial plague, stay away from further spoilers, and even stop reading this review right now. All anyone needs to know is that “Better Watch Out” turns dark humor into darker horror with a wicked twist on home invasion thrillers no sane mind can see coming.
Recapping for plot summary purposes is also tricky. I’ll do what I can to cut into the main meat of critiquing without revealing too much about the content. You’re on your own after these next three paragraphs however, as there’s no tiptoeing around possible spoilers when detailing why co-writer Zack Kahn, director Chris Peckover, and his centerpiece stars deserve righteous praise.
Luke is one of the sweetest 12-year-old dorks this side of cinema. He’s likably goofy, sleeps with a prenatal noise machine, and his cute crush on longtime babysitter Ashley comes with sad piano undertones accenting out-of-his-league awkwardness with sympathetic sentimentality.
Ashley isn’t so bad either. She has the common film teen problem of dating an inconsiderate jock, but plentiful wits and wiles confirm her bulb burns brighter than outward appearances initially infer.
With his immature advances and her gentle rebuffs, Luke’s yin befits Ashley’s yang. Their babysitter/babysittee relationship isn’t destined to hit the next level Luke wants, although it is definitely taken somewhere new when an unknown intruder cuts off all communications, turning them into prisoners inside Luke’s home. The thing is, Luke and Ashley aren’t random targets. Someone has a put a sinister plan into motion involving multiple moving pieces, and unexpected events ensure that plan has little chance of being followed smoothly.
Formerly titled “Safe Neighborhood,” “Better Watch Out” marches to the beat of its own little drummer boy, being blackly funny when it fits, fierce whenever it feels ferocious, and fun no matter what is happening onscreen. There isn’t any slapstick. There are no cheap scare tactics. Smart situational humor organically arises from how people interact with as well as react to one another. Subtle comedy lobs these balls so when the horror bat swings, which it does early and often, it hits with homerun force.
Olivia DeJonge as Ashley and Ed Oxenbould as Luke’s shellshocked pal Garrett channel much of the same chemistry they showed in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” (review here). Their performances more than meet their marks and then some. Yet it is Levi Miller who nearly hides the whole show under his hat and runs away with it.
Miller is terrifically tailored to hit all of Luke’s necessary notes, switching into each transition with skill that belies his experience. One component of his character requires shifting into typical movie psycho territory, but concurrent childlike charm adds a layer that keeps Luke sizzling in spite of stereotyping.
Even in instances where Miller milks too much chutzpah, his exuberance ends up working for the over-the-top persona Luke ultimately embodies. You love him. You hate him. You feel about Luke however the film wants you to feel because the acting, script, and directing masterfully manipulate audience engagement in very specific manners.
Outstanding choreography with regard to how the camera charts its course through a creatively constructed set snaps additional impact into the movie’s crackling energy. Peckover plays deceptively loose with his staging, unafraid to upend expectations or disregard conventions when it makes sense, yet maintains a rein on oscillating tones without any aspect of the movie trampling over another. “Better Watch Out” is rare among dark comic thrillers in that it can cleverly yank out snickers while dropping jaws with wide-eyed shocks.
I’m enthusiastically bullish on the movie, although a return visit every Christmas sounds excessive. “Better Watch Out” is a Grade A effort, though I must emphasize again, it will never feel as fresh, fun, or frightful as it does when the driven snow is still pure. But that first watch is a true doozey.
NOTE: There is a mid-credits scene.
Review Score: 90