When it comes to festive films, the term ‘Christmas classic’ gets bandied around a lot at this time of year – very occasionally, it’s even warranted. Better Watch Out is not one of those films. It’s a great one, and certainly seems destined for annual repeat viewings, but whereas those films are cuddly and snow-dusted, this one’s a gleefully masochistic romp, dripping with merry brutality. Think Home Alone meets The Gift, directed by Tarantino.
Delightfully twee is the warm aesthetic of Christopher Peckover’s Australian/American Christmas comedy-horror. Carollers sing Joy to the World outside of the chocolate-box-cosy abode of the Lerner family, whilst picture-perfect snowfall sees the local children build a snowman – even the film’s font seems to chortle. Then the snowman gets decapitated, we cut to 12-year-old Luke Lerner (Aussie-actor Levi Miller, displaying an impeccable accent) plotting to seduce his five-years-older babysitter Ashley (‘Want to put her in the mood? Watch a horror movie’) whilst downstairs his parents (Patrick Warburton and Virgina Madsen) squabble like they’re on the brink of divorce.
Things twist even nastier when Mr. and Mrs. Lerner head off out for the night, squeaky-voiced adolescent Luke makes precocious moves at Ashley and drinks the best part of a bottle of champagne on her rejecting him. It’s while he’s busy playing the prat that the strange occurrences begin to kick off. First, a pizza arrives before they even order one and then a brick sails through the upstairs window, bearing the scrawled inscription ‘u leave u die’.
Written by Peckover and Zack Kahn, the opening to Better Watch Out is very much in the hipster horror mode of Wes Craven’s Scream films: all very formulaic, but knowingly so. As such, the oddities spring into place while Luke and Ashley are themselves watching a generic horror film, in spite of his Mum’s parting warning not to. One minute Ashley’s scoffing at the unrealistic actions of the characters – ‘Why would they go into the attic? It’s so stupid’ – the next she and Luke are scrambling into their attic. Yet, that’s just one level of the irony. You’ll find no spoilers here but what I will say is that, more so than in Christopher B. Landon’s recent, and similarly-toned, Happy Death Day, this one spirals rapidly off course in a way that earns the derivation. Twists come thick and fast, with jaw-dropping glee. Violent but not quite gory, it’s a deliciously venomous thrill.
For many, it must be said, this will all be too silly. Though the plot is as knotted and tricksy as a well-wrapped box of Christmas tree lights, any close examination would destroy it like some Gordian knot. Anyone care to explain the pizza? On the other hand, it’s still more believable than its 1990 family-friendly counterpart and – sacrilege as it is to say – Better Watch Out’s more fun too.
Crucial to the film’s success is it’s excellent cast. As Ashley, The Visit’s Olivia DeJonge is perfect in both the role of slasher damsel and Buffy heroine, being at all points inept, worth rooting for and strong as an individual amid the film’s testosterone-loaded themes of Freudian masculinity. Speaking of which, Australian rising star Levi Miller (Peter in 2015’s Pan) is outstanding here, dominating scenes with a breathtaking, often deranged, sense of assurance. Many of his lines are delivered with such brilliant verve that, no matter how significant they were to the plot, their resonance lingers long in the mind. Indeed, without Miller, the film would be a far less riveting experience.
With one perfect title (think about the lyrics afterwards) and exceptional young stars, Better Watch Out is a worthy Christmas alternative to those sickened by festive love-ins. Daft, brutal and a ho ho whole lot of fun.