Better Watch Out

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Better Watch Out
"Miller is outstanding."

We've seen Black Christmas. We've seen Red Christmas. (Let's leave White Christmas aside for the meantime.) We know that sometimes that chill in the winter air heralds something other than angels, that sometimes sleighing morphs into slaying and Santa gets Satanic. Better Watch Out promises seasonal slashing in a familiar vein, but you can't always tell what you've got until you open the wrapping. This one is a delicious surprise.

It opens with Luke (Levi Miller) and his bespectacled best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) hanging out in the former's room. Garrett is playing video games; Luke is looking at soft porn and contemplating his chances of seducing his babysitter. Sweet natured, blond and curvacious, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is, as Garret puts it, "a straight ten". She's also around 18 years old; Luke is 12. But he's mature for his age, he insists; and one way or another, he is determined to impress her.

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Pretty much as soon as his parents have gone, Luke sets his plan in motion. To Ashley's consternation, he opens a bottle of champagne, trying to prove his manhood through assurances that he can hold his drink. He persuades her to watch a horror movie so she'll let him sit close and hold her hand. But what really scares her is something else. Mysteriously open doors, downed communications and sinister shadows are just the first indications that it's going to be a long night - and they might not both see the dawn.

Sexual desire in 12-year-olds isn't an easy subject to handle but Chris Peckover expertly judges these delicate scenes, striking just the right balance of discomfort, comedy and realism. Miller - who made a big impression in the title role in 2015's Pan - is outstanding, perfectly capturing the awkwardness of someone who has distinctly adult desires (and a well absorbed sense of entitlement) but is in other ways still very much a child. His easy chemistry with Oxenbould recalls the work of Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg. DeJonge, meanwhile, convinces as someone who is really not very much older and remains vulnerable to the boy's charm, yet is under no illusions about what is and is not appropriate, and has romantic interests elsewhere. Her first instinct towards Luke is protective, but her assurances that she can take care of him are about to be tested.

Peckover is a director who understands that most of the power of a horror film stems from anticipation. He also understands the importance of character dynamics - we won't care about people if we don't get to know them, and it's important to keep us caring even as the action ramps up. There is playful use of homage here - hints of Scream in the way Ashley and Luke criticise film characters for going into the attic shortly before doing so themselves, a stunt borrowed from Home Alone and even some Ferris Bueller-style antics in a frantic sequence close to the end, but Better Watch Out has a very clear voice of its own. The scares are real and satisfying. The use of black comedy enables the film to go to much darker places than routine slasher fare.

Every detail in this film has been beautifully realised, giving it a timeless quality that's likely to make it a seasonal favourite to rival Die Hard. It's one Christmas treat you can look forward to whether you've been naughty or nice.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2017
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Better Watch Out packshot
As a 12-year-old prepares to confess his romantic feelings for his babysitter one Christmas Eve, something starts trying to break into the house.

Read more Better Watch Out reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***

Director: Chris Peckover

Writer: Zack Kahn, Chris Peckover

Starring: Levi Miller, Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic, Dacre Montgomery, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton

Year: 2016

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia, US


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