This fall, The Verge is making a choice. The choice is fear! We’ve decided to embrace the season by taking in as many new horror movies as possible and reporting back on which ones are worth your time. We’re calling this series Hold My Hand, as we look at films you might want to watch with a supportive viewing partner. Get comfortable, put the kettle on, check the closet for ghosts, then find a hand to squeeze until the bones pop.
Christmas is scary. You’re waltzing toward credit-card debt and decorating your home with dried-out dead plants covered in electric accessories. You’re singing songs about infanticide and 400-pound animals that can fly. You’re expected to feel nothing but joy, but sometimes you feel sad or angry because the people around you aren’t behaving the way you want them to. Maybe you swallow that sadness alongside half a pound of fudge, or maybe you start acting like a total freak.
That’s the basic premise of Better Watch Out, a new home-invasion horror film about a pre-teen boy named Luke (Levi Miller), whose parents are gross. He’s in love with his babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) and decides the holidays are the time to tell her. There’s a twinge of something dark in his eyes when he tricks her into letting him pair their pizza with a few glasses of champagne, then whines, “You’ve been drinking, so why won’t you kiss me?” But minutes later, there’s a brick flying through an upstairs window and the phone lines have been cut, so Ashley hardly has any time to dwell on this embarrassing come-on. From that point, the story careens through a series of increasingly bizarre twists, references, and imaginative, technicolor displays of gore. But it keeps coming back to Luke’s angelic little mug — what the heck’s going on behind the facade of this Gap Kids ad?
The film is directed by Chris Peckover, whose only other feature-length credit is 2010’s Undocumented, a horror mockumentary film about anti-immigration radicals in New Mexico. He co-wrote Better Watch Out with Zack Kahn, another relative unknown who spent three years writing for the animated Mad series.
A black comedy set around Christmas isn’t such an odd pairing in an entertainment era that loves pastiche and tonal clash, and it isn’t exactly a novel idea. But Better Watch Out is truly nutso, with a reference-range the size of Texas. It pulls liberally from the recent-ish history of kitsch, including obvious references to a handful of secular Christmas classics — mostly A Christmas Story and Home Alone — and faster, weirder winks at totally unrelated action-movie camp, like Sam Rockwell’s big heel-turn moment in Charlie’s Angels, or Heath Ledger’s infinitely memed “How about a magic trick?” bit in The Dark Knight.
At least you won’t spend one second of Better Watch Out wondering if you might be a little bored.
IS IT SCARY?
It’s hard to answer this question without spoiling Better Watch Out’s crucial twist, but it’s mostly a black comedy with a few jump-scares and one or two moments of lurid gore that a pre-teen boy might find funny. Maybe this was clear to you from the trailer’s unidentifiable, bratty pop-punk cover of “Deck the Halls.”
At its scariest, Better Watch Out recalls the sardonic, twisted sense of humor in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games remake. So you’re less likely to fall out of your seat than you are to feel the bottom of your stomach fall out of your body.
WILL I CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS?
Yes! Olivia DeJonge is incredible as Ashley, the goody-two-shoes babysitter who can also turn on a dime to mutter some lethal burns. An up-and-coming Australian actress, she’s best known in the US for her role in the M. Night Shyamalan renaissance, playing teen documentarist Becca in 2015’s The Visit.
DeJonge does a brilliant job of capturing just how many contradictions people still expect 17-year-old girls to manage, and she forces this to the forefront of the film even when it doesn’t seem like the script acknowledged it much. The dance Ashley has to do around Luke’s confused sexual obsession with her is a complicated production — she’s warm, stern, maternal, funny, professional, friendly, and kind even as she wants more than anything to be alone.
As for the rest of the characters, well, this isn’t a movie that’s going to make anyone with a Y chromosome feel great about themselves.
IS IT VISUALLY IMPRESSIVE?
For a home-invasion movie (so low-budget, there wasn’t even enough cash to air-condition the set), Better Watch Out has surprisingly complex production design. The house and yard were designed by Richard Hobbs, who was also the supervising art director for Mad Max: Fury Road, and it’s clear that he had a lot of fun with the holiday setting. What if all the many giddy hours you spent stringing up Christmas decorations were actually unknowing labor toward creating a lethal Rube Goldberg machine?
Plus the whole film is shot with the warm glow of a holiday classic, a transparent attempt to make each new turn of events feel like a fresh assault on comfort. Listen, it doesn’t have to be clever to be effective.
WHAT’S LURKING BENEATH THE SURFACE?
In interviews, Peckover called Better Watch Out a tribute to Wes Craven, and Scream in particular. He’s also said he pitched it around by asking, “What if you took a John Hughes movie setup with a 12-year-old boy trying to win over his babysitter, and then gave that script to Quentin Tarantino, like, ‘Now fuck this up’?”
He clearly wants this movie to subvert horror tropes and expectations, but that mission has long been its own horror-movie trope. And it’s recently been revitalized in home invasion movies in particular, starting with You’re Next and The Cabin in the Woods, and echoing through Don’t Breathe, Hush, and the awful new remake of Dementia 13. If there’s anything we actually do expect from horror movies in 2017 — post-Get Out, post-Mother!, post-Kevin-Smith-does-horror-now — it’s to have our expectations subverted. That idea isn’t enough.
Fortunately, Olivia DeJonge carries the film on her shoulders, even in sock feet. She’s asked to act the film’s most emotional sequences with duct tape over her mouth! Peckover insists on calling the end of Better Watch Out’s first act “a million-dollar twist,” and it is pretty good. But it would be nothing if DeJonge hadn’t quietly resolved to turn in one of the best horror-movie performances of the year.
She gives Better Watch Out a reason to exist by providing it with an undercurrent it wouldn’t have otherwise. Shoving all the showy stuff aside and focusing only on her, Better Watch Out becomes a solid movie about holding onto a moral code and a sense of humor under pressure. It’s almost a coming-of-age movie, with the cynical but not ridiculous viewpoint that a young woman’s coming of age in modern America involves running headlong into five or six types of toxic masculinity, and figuring out how to survive them.
HOW CAN I WATCH IT?
Better Watch Out opens in limited release on October 6th, and it will also be available to rent on Vudu.
IS THIS A HAND-HOLDING MOVIE?
A little bit of hand-holding happens in Better Watch Out, but for the most part, you’ll need your hands for more practical concerns while you’re watching it. For example: to use as an added flourish when you gasp, or to cover your eyes during a revolting sequence involving a pencil, a face, and a joint rolled by a 12-year-old. Or you might need them to order a pizza. It’s so hard to watch people eat pizza in a movie when you yourself don’t have any pizza.