The holidays are approaching as we prepare to reach the end of the year but director/co-writer Chris Peckover wants to beat the chaotic Christmas rush by offering some creepy coal in his cinematic stockings.- Most notably, a merry-minded macabre middle finger to the Yuletide season in the charmingly twisted and creatively corrosive suburban home invasion horror thriller ‘Better Watch Out’.
Peckover, whose darkened delve into the timely and topical political bonfire known as illegal immigration in 2010’s disturbing and noteworthy ‘Undocumented’, delivers a diabolical ditty that resonates gleefully in subversive wit, sick-minded jingle hell fraught and turns upside down the tired conventional creepfest genre into an edgy, hair-raising horrific hoot armed with the favorably kind of rancid camp and rollicking recklessness that makes for an insatiable sick-minded satire. Indeed, one needs to raise their mug of tasty eggnog to celebrate the seasonal Christmas fear in the demented yet oddly inspired and viciously wired ‘Better Watch Out’.
Sure, ‘Better Watch Out’ generously borrows from a number of films in the kiddie-imperiled, home invasion showcases that we have seen over time and time again. However, Peckover’s sense of go-for-broke adventurous direction, a flippantly smart and energetic script, convincing off-the-wall but solid and disciplined performances and the nail-biting, naughty-minded nuttiness that runs amok in this 85-minute perverse, hedonistic home-bound torture chamber is genuinely realised. Although ‘Watch’ appears to seemingly have an American pedigree in its cockeyed presentation of sweater-wearing Yanks nestled before an open fire on a scenic winter evening, it is worth noting that ‘Better Watch Out’ is a co-Australian production (most of the film was shot on location in Sydney) so some Aussie presence is definitely permeates in this eerie but insidiously cheeky domestic dire drama.
Cleverly, ‘Better Watch Out’ (incidentally also known as ‘Safe Neighborhood’) somehow seems to elevate the impishly comical yet caustically slash-and-dash sub-genre to a whole new fresh level of appreciation whether offering a cynical spin on the cliched babysitter-in-charge yarn or poking biting fun at the hidden dysfunction of the privileged living in the pricey bubble of manicured lawns and gaudy, expansive homes in milquetoast Middle America. Interestingly, Peckover shares his generosity of sacrilege in using the spiritual aura of the Christmas landscape to skew the undercurrent idealism of cozy co-existence in the realm of protective picket fences and precocious yet insecure youngsters that are forced to battle this week’s bombastic boogeyman that dares to interrupt their unappreciated lap of luxury.
‘Better Watch Out’ should not be too concerned whether or not Santa is coming to town but in the case of the Satan-esque home intruders that want to sadistically spread some holiday jeer…well folks that is another story entirely. The outgoing parents Robert and Deandra Lerner (TV veteran Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen) must leave their 12 year-old son Luke (Levi Miller, ‘Pan’) in the care of a babysitter in their absence. This suits Luke just fine because the babysitter in question happens to be his targeted object of affection going on so many years and counting. Luke’s crush for his caretaker is immense and he feels fortunate enough to take advantage of her company while hoping to score some major points with her heart. After all, Luke is not a baby, he’ll be thirteen in a matter of weeks, so his desired dreamgirl should accept him easier being a year older, right? Keep on dreaming, Lukester.
The vivacious Ashley (Olivia Dejonge, ‘The Visit’) is the recipient of Luke’s innocent lust. The question remains: when can the eager Luke seal the deal and let his babysitting beauty know about his romantic feelings for her? Well, one must give Luke credit for trying to sway the older titillating teen to consider his lovey-dovey overtures towards her. Naturally, Ashley finds all this rather awkward and amusing. However, as Luke’s hopes for charming the socks off of Ashley go south there are other factors that are ruining his efforts to score with the treasured blonde babysitter. The distractions become gradually intrusive and overbearing. Random phone calls are deemed disturbing, then finally there is sinister static occurring in and out of the house. Before the dust settles with the dangerous distractions transpiring left and right, the ultimate heinous happenings reaches its creepy climax as actual intruders are now front and center. Hence, the panicky Ashley must step up to the plate and protect her charge Luke and herself from these menacing misfits invading the Lerners’ home. Does the babysitting bombshell have what it takes to be resourceful and defend these criminal cretins from bringing harm to the exposed household?
It would not be beneficial to elaborate further on the percolating plot in ‘Better Watch Out’ for the violation of giving away too much that constitutes spoiling this film’s twists and turns of eye-winking surprises and developments. However, one can certainly give glowing credit to the production crew and performers that collaborate and create an absurdist atmosphere of holiday-themed anarchy thus giving ‘Watch’ a delicious devilish streak in its wild and whacked-out colourful violence. Peckover and co-writer Zach Kahn create this deliriously spunky acidic project laced with intentions of outwitting its audience trying to follow the dots of the off-the-cuff mayhem. Granted that the majority of unimaginative and faceless conveyor belt creep shows released from Hollywood’s predictable playground is typical fright-light farces that more times than not insult if not properly engage the viewers. ‘Better Watch Out’ challenges the masses with its promising fatalistic frivolity and rollicking ridicule as it mocks as much as salutes the twitchy-based goose-bump cinema it is aping with noted sardonic affection.
Aussie actress Dejonge, sporting a rather authentic American accent, is enjoyable as the feisty Ashley whose conviction to serve and protect the livelihood of her junior-sized puppy love pal from hellish harm is a marvel to experience. Dejonge’s Ashley is not some scream queen airhead and grips the over-sized butcher knife in some some jittery scenes with all the conviction that does not suggest a dimwitted damsel-in-distress. Miller is relatable as the coming-of-age dweeb kid whose hormones snap, crackle and pop more than a super-sized bowl of Rice Krispies. Still, one cannot blame the love-struck lad, especially if you had Dejonge’s hot-blooded teen tart guarding your safety from unknown forces on a blanketed snowy day in Anywhere, USA. Besides, Luke thinks of himself as Ashley’s protector. Together, the jeopardised pair are absorbing as they face off against their destructive detractors.
Although shown briefly, Warburton’s Robert and Madsen’s Deandra are a couple of welcomed tools as the bickering parents to wannabe smooth operator Luke. Ed Oxenbould dutifully shines as the obligatory best friend, Garrett, who is a tortured sideline witness to Luke’s outlandish agenda for sweeping Ashley off of her feet. Thrown into the mix of the topsy-turvy crisis-driven storm are Ashley’s tandem of boytoys from the present in Ricky (Aleks Mikic) and past in Dacre Montgomery’s Jeremy.
There is no need to kiss off the haunting but humorously heady ‘Better Watch Out’ under the mistletoe because its infectious pucker for deadly delirium will be felt no matter where one is standing at the moment.
Better Watch Out (2017)
Well Go USA Entertainment
1 hour 36 minutes
STARRING: Olivia Dejonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Virginia Madsen, Patric Warburton, Alek Mikic and Darce Montgomery
DIRECTOR: Chris Peckover
WRITERS: Chris Peckover, Zack Kahn
MPAA Rating: R
GENRE: Horror, Mystery & Suspense, Drama, Comedy
Critic’s rating: *** stars (out of 4 stars)
(c) Frank Ochieng 2017