“Better Watch Out” is the thinking person’s stupid holiday horror movie.
Which means that ultimately it’s not stupid at all.
Co-writer and director Chris Peckover clearly knows his way around both the holiday and horror genres, and while this isn’t the first time someone has blended the two, it is one of the more effective efforts. It’s scary, sort of, and it’s fun — if your idea of fun involves occasional gore and torture. Plus: Christmas decorations!
Luke (Levi Miller) is a 12-year-old boy hanging out with his best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), waiting for his babysitter to arrive. Luke’s parents (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen, terrific in an acerbic cameo) are going to a holiday party, so Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is on the way over.
The prospect certainly excites Luke (and his dad). Ashley is about to move out of town, so, despite the age-and-maturity gap, Luke plans to make his move once his parents are gone.
That goes about as well as you’d expect, especially since Ashley keeps spending time on the phone with her boyfriend (Alexis Mikic), much to Luke’s frustration. Popping the cork on some champagne doesn’t impress her as much as he had hoped (he is 12, after all). But he finally sits on the couch with her to watch a horror movie, hoping that might make her at least need comforting. She’s agreeable to the idea, and is indeed scared by the movie.
They were going to order a pizza, but Ashley forgot to make the call. Then the pizza delivery guy shows up anyway. But wait, who ordered it? Maybe Luke’s dad? Doesn’t he know Luke hates mushrooms?
Then they hear a noise outside.
From there things take a turn toward horror. And then a sharper turn in the same direction. But there are a lot of curves along the way. Peckover does a really good job of setting up expectations and then subverting them — and sometimes switching things around again.
It would spoil things to say much more, except in generalities. For instance, there is some gleeful sadism on display here, which fits surprisingly neatly alongside the film’s “Home Alone” fixation (both implicit and explicit). One minute you think it might be a triumph-of-the-geeks story. The next you’re not so sure.
A vein of increasingly dark humor runs throughout the film — again, for those who are able to find laughs in this kind of thing. But if you like your horror unhinged, you won’t be disappointed.
The performances are uniformly good, though no one approaches the expert bickering between old pros Madsen and Warburton. DeJonge and especially Miller are good at what they’re asked to do, although saying more would be unfair.
Peckover doesn’t skimp on the holiday trappings. There are carolers, holiday songs, bright lights and a light-up Santa that keeps showing up unexpectedly. It’s a nice touch; this really does feel like a holiday movie, right up until the point that it doesn’t, unless the holiday in question is Halloween.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
Well Go USApresents a film directed by Chris Peckover and written by Peckover and Zack Kahn. Rated R (fordisturbing violent content, language throughout, crude sexual references, drug and alcohol use — all involving teens). Running time: 85 minutes. Screening at 4:30 p.m. Friday and 11:30 p.m. Saturday at Facets Cinematheque.