You may want to walk away from Better Watch Out during its first half. For the first 30 minutes Chris Peckover gives us a Christmas-themed home invasion thriller that is sorely lacking in originality and only manages a few mild chuckles, upheld by teenage actors who are clearly struggling with the seemingly insipid material script. That’s only the first 30 minutes though. Though Peckover and fellow screenwriter Zack Kahn may initially appear to have given us a middling and slow-moving slice of generic “horror”, they manage to pull off a genuinely shocking and unexpected twist, flipping the whole thing on it’s head and progressing to the point of no return. I felt like a fool for thinking I had wasted my time with this innovative, quirky and very self-aware horror.
This makes discussing the film all the more difficult; the less you know going in, the better. Not only is Better Watch Out (formerly known as Safe Neighbourhood) a refreshing piece that meticulously grows towards a bloody – and very dark – conclusion, but it’s also perfectly cast. I knew Levi Miller (who plays 12 year old Luke) was good after Jasper Jones was released earlier this year, but not that good. The young star chews through his material with depth and real sense of who his character is, practicing an admirable amount of restraint even when the script makes it easy to be overly dramatic. He bounces off babysitter (and crush) Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) and best friend Garret (Ed Oxenbould) for a lead trio that’s likable, charming and believable.
The premise is incredibly straight forward. Luke’s parents (brief but brilliant performances by Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) are heading off to a party and have put babysitter Ashley in charge for the night, pulling double-duty as the nerdy BFF Garret is hanging around to make sure Luke, who of course claims he’s mature for his age, doesn’t mess things up with his big crush. Things get a little complicated when we enter trope-city though, and aggressive knocks at the door are accompanied by silent phone calls, seguing into a sinister game of cat-and-mouse which further descends into absolute chaos.
The surprisingly dark implications of what unfolds is unlike anything the genre has seen before, requiring a balance of terror and levity from all three leads who are more than capable of delivering, even when the script keeps taking things to the next unexpected level. There’s a bit of Home Alone in there, a hell of a lot of Funny Games, and plenty of interesting ideas that bring it in-line with the more creative home invasions of the past few years like You’re Next and Don’t Breathe.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Better Watch Out is screening as part of Sydney Film Festival, with its final screening on Friday, June 16th. For more information and tickets click HERE.