The recipe for a perfect Christmas horror film — think the 1974 classic Black Christmas or 2010’s more arty, Finnish offering Rare Exports — calls for dark humor, at least one scene of bright red blood on snow, some kind of creepy Christmas toy or ornament, and a healthy dollop of irreverence for such a sacred season. Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out contains all of the above as well as a killer twist that upends this silly-to-serious film that’s sure to enter the canon of Christmas movies for people who prefer a bit of arsenic laced into Santa’s cookies.
Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton get top billing as bickering mom and dad Deandra and Robert, but the real star is the talented young cast. Olivia DeJonge is Ashley, a frazzled 17-year-old who’s constantly fielding angry calls from her exes and parents, always at someone else’s bidding. But when Deandra and Robert hand over some pizza money and leave her in charge of their baby-faced 12-year-old son Luke (Levi Miller) for the night, we finally see her getting comfortable, with a little control. Luke and his buddy Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) seem like typical kids testing the waters of preteen mischief. An early scene finds Luke in his nice, clean bedroom convincing Garrett with scientific evidence that horror movies are an aphrodisiac: “Fear,” he insists, “really makes girls wet.” The aim of their research, of course, is Luke setting up babysitter Ashley for some action that night. That’s totally gross, obviously, but Luke’s misplaced pining plays innocuously. How many times have we seen that crushed-out setup in family friendly movies like The Sandlot and Adventures in Babysitting?
But Better Watch Out is not for the family. Soon it becomes a slick home-invasion thriller that flips at the 35-minute mark into something completely unexpected, something that had me slapping myself for not having earlier seen where it was going. I’m not going to give it away, of course. Just know that the second half had my brain racing with thoughts about how we condition boys to think they are entitled to whatever they want, from the earliest of ages.
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Peckover and co-writer Zack Kahn demonstrate a solid grasp of what we’re used to seeing in horror, quickly setting us up to take the bait. When Ashley picks up the phone to hear breathing on the other end of the line, she goes to the window to flash the bird at whatever pranksters are outside the house. The tension’s high as we see Ashley gazing out into a darkened yard, but that’s also a scene ripped right out of Scream, which perfectly plays on our expectations of when a masked killer will appear — until Peckover and Kahn stab us in the back. The two also fit in a running gag about Home Alone that ends with a splatter that’ll have you rethinking whether you should show that beloved Macaulay Culkin comedy to your kids. It’s only October, but Christmas has come early for horror fans.