Each year, hidden amongst the typical family Christmas releases, comes a new festive treat (or two) for the horror fiends amongst us. While audiences of all ages are sunken into their couches enjoying wholesome yuletide stories, those with a more devious penchant are gorging on the gnarlier treats and indulging in maniacal Santas, blood-stained snow and sacrilegious carnage. Recent offerings include Krampus, Red Christmas and Silent Night, and this year we unwrap one of the most deliciously deranged presents of them all, Better Watch Out.
Starring three of Australia’s most promising up-and-coming actors, this Aussie-American co-production is an unapologetic and surprisingly twisted nasty that sees its tween cast doing and saying things that kids just shouldn’t be… err, doing or saying.
Luke (Levi Miller, Jasper Jones) is a 12-year-old boy with the hots for his 16-year-old babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge, The Visit), and when his parents leave for the night, he seizes the opportunity to make his move on her. With the encouragement of his horny best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould, Paper Planes), he carefully orchestrates a night of misguided romance… which he doesn’t stand a hope in hell of achieving. But after receiving a series of mysterious phone calls, their night takes a sinister turn as a masked intruder lurks through their house and terrorises all three with the simple decree, “If you leave the house, you’re dead”.
The premise is simple enough and it plays into the home-invasion sub-genre nicely, however the plot takes a sudden turn around the 30-minute mark and turns the story on its head, unleashing a controversial and totally unexpected tale of brutality. To say more would be to spoil the fun; suffice to say that Better Watch Out is an unusual and refreshing entry into the Christmas horror genre that flaunts with tradition and throws conventions out the window.
The first striking element to the film is its production design. Despite being an Australian co-production, shot in Sydney, featuring three Aussie leads actors, the movie presents a very American Christmas atmosphere with a winter-wonderland setting, complete with snow-lined streets and festively decorated houses. As with all good holiday horrors, this lends the movie a wonderful ambience and a vibrant juxtaposition as the carnage unfolds.
The other striking quality to the film is its lighting design. Director Chris Peckover opts for a fully lit home environment, relying on darkness for as little time as possible, and brings his villain from out of the shadows, where they take the centre stage in a bold and confronting way. This surprise element, in turn, defies many of the clichés and tropes within the film, and deflects the viewers’ attention away from some of his tricks. It’s a very different Christmas movie indeed.
Miller, DeJonge and Oxenbould are, without question, stars of the future and Better Watch Out gives them further opportunity to break free of their family-friendly restraints to showcase their capacity for mature material. DeJonge and Oxenbould previously starred together in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit and their chemistry on screen is well established, while Miller’s Hollywood-bound trajectory is proof enough of his talent and fantastic on-screen presence. To throw added weight to the casting, the parents are played by Virginia Madsen and Patrick Wurburton, whose roles, despite being relegated to bookends, are integral to the film’s tone. There’s a sense that they both appreciate the outrageous and controversial nature of the film, and they embrace the material with relish.
Home Alone meets Funny Games is the best way to describe Better Watch Out. Had the film’s actual premise been revealed in its marketing campaign, there’s no doubt that we’d be looking at a shit-storm of parental outrage similar to the furore that dogged Silent Night, Deadly Night back in the 80s. Here’s hoping that we’re looking at another Christmas classic in years to come.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10