Sunday, December 3, 2017

Better Watch Out (2017)

Director: Chris Peckover
Notable Cast: Levi Miller, Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Patrick Warburton, Dacre Montgomery, Viginia Madsen, Aleks Mikic

If a person digs through the $5 bin or stumbles into the straight to home video section of their local Wal Mart, one is likely to see that Christmas themed horror films are a dime a dozen in the last couple of years. It’s an easy gimmick to grab and throwing on the word Krampus or a bad Christmas pun for a tagline guarantees a handful of impulse buys in box stores looking for some counter programing to the usual Christmas movies that bombard their TVs. Yet, it’s a sub-genre of horror that does have its merits when properly utilized. This leads to the hesitation and excitement for any new film that adheres to the Christmas theme. Better Watch Out, a rare horror release from our friends at Well Go USA who are known for distributing foreign films usually of the action variety, marks an intriguing spin on the Christmas horror film. It’s a film rooted in the Christmas film idea, at times even going as far as referencing a famous Christmas film that I will talk about here in a bit, but also spins it as a home invasion/survival film with a wickedly effective dark sense of humor. Better Watch Out is a film that somewhat takes its audience in different directions than expected and still presents a film that grows on repeated viewings. Some fans may not love that it doesn’t play its hands up front, but for those going into it with an open mind, Better Watch Out will become an instant holiday horror classic to revisit in years to come.

True survivors.
The foundational basis of Better Watch Out is simple. It’s a home invasion/survival horror film simply set around Christmas time. In that sense, much of the smaller moments, the usual intense set pieces of build and release, may not be nearly as fresh feeling as the rest of the film. It hits many of the usual scenes of paranoia, pseudo-torture, and bursts of intense smaller chase sequences. Better Watch Out uses the blue print of the home invasion/survival film as its core and that may be slightly disappointing to those expecting something else. Yet, it’s just a foundational choice and not necessarily representative of the style or approach of the film itself.

There are three reasons that this adherence to the blue print works for Better Watch Out. Firstly, the film has some effectively placed twists in the narrative and plotting that work to its benefit to keep it feeling tight, snarky, and refreshing. If you want me to give away those, I will not, and even then, there are people online that make the claim that the plot spins and narrative shifts are relatively expected in the film since it is based on a generally basic formula so they don’t believe them to work nearly as well. Better Watch Out, for my money, handles them impressively well and the builds to their reveals and the sudden twists work to balance out the consumable nature of its core. If an audience flows with what the film is giving them, the twists are effective and keep the pacing of the film brisk and the momentum moving.

She's a little tied up with the Christmas lights at the moment.
Secondly, Better Watch Out knows what kind of film it is. Not only in the sense that it embraces its strengths and knows the weaknesses of its concept, but it’s a film that is often self-referential. As mentioned above, this film actually references another classic Christmas film, Home Alone, as a large portion of its self-referencing angle. For those who are familiar with the other film, there are a handful of jokes and scary sequences that take a darkly humorous turn that are pulled from Home Alone and it’s kind of brilliant. The film is full of pop culture references, as most comedies nowadays attempt to do, but this film handles them with a loose and wicked flair to add to the dark comedy and surprises of its plotting.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Better Watch Out is just impressively executed. Director Chris Peckover, in his sophomore directing effort, handles the material with style and pizzazz, making use of the tropes of the genre, strong tension building sequences, and bursts of laughter and scares to deliver a film that rises above the constraints of its foundational blue prints. Not only does he use the Christmas time setting to maximize the color scheme and visuals of the film, but he simple nails the brisk pacing and atmosphere so that Better Watch Out never outstays its welcome. It certainly helps when he has a surprisingly solid set of young actors and actresses to help him out to balance the genre spins of comedy and horror. In particular, Levi Miller as the young man being babysat while his parents are out delivers a varied and impressively subtle performance that delivers when it needs to, while the more straightforward work from Olivia DeJonge as the babysitter adds that final girl cornerstone flair needed to carry the film through its balancing act.

"You lookin' at me?"
In the end, even with some hesitations going into the film, Better Watch Out soars as a modern instant Christmas horror classic that will find its way into the yearly seasonal rotations of many genre fans. Its concept is consumable, the execution is sharp in handling the genre shifting between horror and often extremely dark humor, and its self-referential approach make it both entertaining and fulfilling as a piece of horror cinema. It plays its narrative and plot loose and fun while maintaining a wink-wink sense of attitude as it runs through the tropes of the usual home invasion/survival film. Fans of the genre will definitely want to check this out this season, so add it to your Christmas to-do list.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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