FANTASIA 2017: BETTER WATCH OUT

Nothing gets me excited quite like a Christmas horror film. Black Christmas is the gold standard, but other films like Silent Night, Deadly Night and Child’s Play have kept the sub-genre alive and kicking.  But we don’t get many, at least not quality ones. Krampus exceeded all expectations and we haven’t really seen any since. Enter Better Watch Out, which is sort of what happens when you take Home Alone, mix it with Funny Games, and spice it up with The Bad Seed. Shot in Australia but set in an everyday American town, Better Watch Out is a vicious little gem of a picture and one that will undoubtedly cement its place among the great holiday horror classics. I never knew what to expect from this film, and that’s the greatest gift of all.

Luke (Levi Miller) is a 12-year-old kid who’s desperately in love with his babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). She’s five years older and in a relationship with Ricky (Aleks Mikic) and about to move to another state, but Luke has decided he is finally going to use this night–the night his parents are away at a party–to make his move on Ashley. He confides this early in the film to his best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould). So when his parents (Virginia Madsen & Patrick Warburton) disappear, so begins Luke’s attempt at conquest. This mediocre attempt at romance, however, goes immediately sour when Ashley and Luke are descended upon my home invaders threatening to kill them if they leave the house. So now, not only does Luke have to try and win the love of an older woman, but he has to do it while outsmarting deranged attackers.

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Oh, would that it were so simple. It turns out Luke and Garrett have orchestrated the entire invasion in a lame attempt to have Luke save the day and win over Ashley. Things take a darker turn when Luke takes Ashley hostage, threatening to kill her and playing some serious malicious games with her, including inviting her boyfriend and ex-boyfriend to join in the fun. As Luke’s violence amps up more and more, and as Garrett’s distaste at the whole ordeal heightens, Ashley is left to figure a way out of an increasingly unpredictable situation being orchestrated by a frustrated, horny twelve-year-old who looks like an angel and acts like a devil.

What a blast this movie is, from beginning to end. It’s constantly subverting expectations and then, sometimes, doing exactly what you expect it to do, but in the most clever ways. This is what happens when a deranged kid watches Home Alone and thinks, “Man, that stuff looks like it might be fun to try!” And he does. He literally attempts the “paint can off the balcony” maneuver from the actual film. Better Watch Out works so well because it pays homage to holiday films of the past, while never being afraid to cover them in blood. We never quite know just how far director Chris Peckover is going to take the violence, so it’s always a surprise, especially when we eventually realize there are no limits to what he’ll do. It was like watching Funny Games for the first time and thinking, “Surely he isn’t going to do that.” He does, and he owns it, and it makes Better Watch Out the best horror film of the year, hands down.

Now, let’s talk about Levi Miller. What a performance. I remember seeing him as a super young kid in Joe Wright’s Pan, but he owns every second here as Luke. The range required for this performance is astounding, especially when you consider the delicate balance he has to strike between menace and dark comedy, and sometimes both at the same time. But Miller is just as adept at Michael Haneke levels of brutality as he is with Edgar Wright levels of comedy. It’s that cherubic face and posh dress that make it difficult to believe he’s doing what he’s doing, even when we’re watching it unfold right before our eyes. This kid is now firmly on my radar and I can’t wait to see what he does next. It’s one of the best performances of the year.

Equal to Miller in almost every way is Olivia DeJonge as Ashley. She manages the rare feat of actually seeming like a pretty interesting character while maintaining the tropes we associate with the clueless babysitter; this film proves someone can be both. Her scenes with Miller have a terrific chemistry and their mutual descent is fascinating to watch. We never really sense that Luke loves Ashley as much as he feels possessive of her, not wanting anyone else to have her. This is particularly evident when Garrett touches Ashley in a way that Luke doesn’t like. It’s those moments when Miller’s performance gets truly chilling and the film loses any and all sense of the dark comedy it builds itself upon. And then you’ll have Miller dancing around the house in socked feet cleaning up after himself, almost like Risky Business with a mutilated body.

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Better Watch Out is best experienced knowing as little as possible, so please don’t go back and read the spoilers. The less you know, the better fun you’ll have. And what fun it is. But, whereas Funny Games offers little relief for the viewer, Better Watch Out understands what’s needed to make the tonal balance work. When it abandons that, it’s because it’s choosing to do so. Kudos to director Chris Peckover for delivering a real holiday horror classic that embraces that title, and does everything it can to give it a makeover. But the real highlight here is Miller who makes an instant impression as one of the best (and, honestly, bravest) actors of his age group. This is a gutsy role to take on, especially with the kind of confidence Miller oozes.

Better Watch Out is available in theaters and on demand October 6th from Well Go Entertainment.

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