By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 16, 2018
Released Oct. 6, 2017
Rated R – 1hr 29min
Directed by Chris Peckover
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton
Bickering, over-protective parents Robert and Deandra (Warburton & Madsen) leave their 12-year-old son Luke (Miller) in the care of his longtime babysitter Ashley (DeJonge) as they head off to a Christmas party. The maturing lad has developed romantic feelings for the young woman, but as he awkwardly attempts to make a move, an unexpected guest makes a move of their own.
Better Watch Out is a home invasion psychological thriller with big twists to the classic formula that is, in turns, darkly comic and relentlessly sadistic. It also happens to take place during the Christmas season.
It’s now easy to see why Better Watch Out – with its high production value, novel concept, and cast of both up-and-comers and established names – would get such a low-profile release around…Halloween? Ok – that part I don’t get, but the rest of it became quite obvious. This would be an impossible movie to market. The less you know about it, the better, and it’s obviously difficult to put butts in theater seats without letting the people those butts belong to know exactly what they’re in for. Instead, it’s something meant to be stumbled upon – to be approached blindly, and as such, that also makes it difficult to present a spoiler-free review, but here it goes.
In an effort to be as spoiler-less as possible, what would have been an image from the film has been replaced by a doubtlessly miserable cat in a Santa hat.
Better Watch Out is a movie that delights in its twists, each one with darker implications than the one proceeding it, and like the earlier works of M. Night Shymalan, each one threatens to lose the viewer if they’re not willing to accept it (interesting note: this film reunites Olivia DeJonge & Ed Oxenbould, the two young leads of Shymalan’s The Visit). Whether it be from a logical bridge too far or from sheer disgust at the unexpectedly and increasingly sadistic offerings, it’s guaranteed to polarize and alienate. It’s not even particularly gory – what violence there is generally occurs off-camera or from obscured angles and aftermaths shown in the background – nor does it fixate on physical torture, with the bloodshed occurring in quick and sudden bursts. Instead, the focus is upon the mechanizations of a psychopath, who prefers to toy with minds and manipulate emotions before launching into the next insidious phase of their cruel campaign. While that particular story has been told numerous times before, there’s still plenty of surprises to be had throughout this one.
You can’t eat a Christmas tree, you adorable little idiot.
Director-cowriter Chris Peckover orchestrates all of this holiday havoc with a sure and confident approach. While not ambitiously stylish, the framing and camerawork are used creatively to capture the escalating descent into mayhem. Along with his only other feature, 2011’s Undocumented – a politically-charged ‘torture porn’ effort – it’s apparent that he specializes in highlighting realistic motivations for displays of human depravity. While the scope of Better Watch Out is the smaller of the two, it does allow for a greater examination into a dangerously troubled mind. We also get compelling performances from all the young leads, as they convincingly convey new dynamics in their characters with each progressive narrative leap.
This is, however, a Christmas movie only on a surface level. There’s lots of imagery and music therein to remind us that it is, in fact, very much Christmastime, but that fact has only the most incidental of effects on the plot. I am a member of the ‘Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie’ club though, so I must rule in favor of this movie’s holiday credentials. So, if you’re in the mood for a maniac movie this Yuletide season that places psychological menace over gruesome visuals and doesn’t feature a killer Santa, then this might be just what you’re looking for, provided you’re willing to go along with it. I can’t stress enough that it’s best to know as little as possible beforehand, so avoid the trailer, stay off the IMDb page, and you’ll be set.
More often than usual, results will vary wildly depending on preferences and expectations, but from me, Better Watch Out gets a rating of