Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out (formerly Safe Neighborhood) is more a gift-wrapped home invasion tickler than break-in terrorizer à la The Strangers, but that doesn’t translate to a lack of creeps. The innocence of Home Alone meets jingle bell schlock, and while Zack Kahn’s story isn’t wholly unpredictable, what plays out still subverts typical babysitter-in-peril tropes (enough). My only advice? Don’t watch a single trailer, clip, or interview until you’ve experienced Better Watch Out for yourself. Hell, you should probably stop reading my review. Spoilers won’t follow, but Peckover’s strengths all hinge on surprise. No peeking until Christmas morning!
The setup, without divulging twists, is a simple one. Thirteen-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) is in love with his babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). He’s determined to win over the high school sweetheart while his parents (played by Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) enjoy a night out. Ashley shows up, and Luke makes his move by popping a bottle of champagne. Then there’s a knock at the door. A pizza delivery? But neither Luke nor Ashley ordered hot ‘za. Then a noise. Is someone in the house? What should have been a “romantic evening” now looks like a burglary at best, or at worst – well, Ashely and Luke are determined not to find out how bad things can get.
A vague description? Yes. One that falsely represents a more complicated movie than the above narrative suggests. There’s no joy in spoiling what Better Watch Out has in store, which makes any critical assessment a real sonofabitch to address. Performances, gruesome death sequences, fresh-baked treats – everything is tied to an immediate thematic shift some thirty minutes in. Not as smooth as a Nutcracker ballet, but still a fun diversion nonetheless.
As Peckover is hanging bloody stockings in the form of red herrings, there’s not much that distracts from where events are heading. I argue that’s intentional. We’re never meant to be completely oblivious of certain motivations and musings. Better Watch Out places more emphasis on tyrannical control, turning the tides of what should or shouldn’t be. Some will say the “reveal” is like opening presents on Christmas morning, while others bemoan a film that “thinks it’s smarter than it really is.” In reality? It’s just a pivot that leads to childish hooliganism and falsified safety. The whole “never in my neighborhood” line that nosey neightbors might utter while crime scene tape is being strung like garland.
Olivia DeJonge doubles as both prototype heroine and unfortunate hostage, always tied to Levi Miller’s sleepwalking, suave-but-immature prepster. Ed Oxenbould enters the mix as a friend of Miller’s, druggie/bad influence Garrett, while Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery pop in as a current boyfriend and ex-boyfriend respectively. How they mix involves gunshots, Christmas light bindings, a swinging paint can and a dangling noose – Better Watch Out hinges itself on the darkest comedics and fight-or-flight survival. Genre deviousness gets a playground juvenility given the actors’ age range, while dashes of Dexter and Who Could Kill A Child? make their way into a swirling snowglobe of dread. No parents, no authorities – no help in sight.
Safe Neighborhood is the title that holds more meaning, but as Better Watch Out, appropriate holiday accents are teased. There’s less shock to Chris Peckover’s sophomore feature than initial festival hype may have suggested – but more in terms of decked-out genre foolishness. As schemes fail and improvisation is demanded, wrongdoers are tested in their abilities of sinister adaptation. We wait for a slip-up, anything that increases overwhelming odds, but remain equally hooked on meticulous planning and a commitment to seeing things through. Maybe I’ll pen a spoiler-heavy review when October hits and Better Watch Out can be seen in full by all audiences, just not now. All you need to know is my approval and take, which is positive enough to get your butt in front of this perky Australian homage to first-class psychotics.
Better Watch Out is a good movie you should watch knowing nothing about, like a spoiler-free Christmas morning.