A ho-ho-home invasion yarn which deliciously subverts the genre, this Yuletide horror is an impressive piece of work, bolstered by some memorable performances and a truly unique mid-point twist. Although very different thematically, it shares the kind of joyfully anarchic anti-Holidays vibe which has made the likes of Gremlins an alternative Christmas favourite. It’s a superior entry to those endless feel-bad festive films cranked out as counter-programming during the season to be jolly, and could easily go on to have a similarly annual cultish appeal to that of Joe Dante’s feature.
It’s Christmas and the well-to-do Lerners (brief but memorable appearances from Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) are on their way out to a party, leaving their precocious 12 year-old son Lukas (Levi Miller) in the capable hands of his regular babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). Like many teens, Lukas has a huge crush on his minder, and intends to share his feelings with her this night, although annoying best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) is less than encouraging. But as the evening progresses, all is not right as Lukas and Ashley settle in for an evening of popcorn and movies. A pizza is delivered which hasn’t been ordered by either, and the two begin to realise that they may have an unwanted visitor, lurking both outside and inside of the property.
Without revealing in detail the fate of Lukas and his babysitter, suffice to say, what starts out resembling a glossy Hallmark Channel Xmas comedy transforms into something akin to a version of Home Alone in an alternative universe where Michael Haneke was handed the script and given free rein to do a drastic rewrite. In fact, that 1990 festive megahit is morbidly referenced here, with the Tom and Jerry violence given an altogether more realistic and graphic slant.
It’s a wonderful rug pull moment for the audience, but the latter half of Better Watch Out wouldn’t work without the committed performances that entirely sell the tonal shift. It’s here where Miller’s skills as performer come to the fore and that pre-pubescent, cherubic exterior reveals something very different bubbling underneath. A mightily impressive feat for the 15 year-old actor. There’s plenty of well-orchestrated jump scares scattered throughout and director Chris Peckover is a dab hand at cranking up the suspense, whilst ensuing the character work remains at the fore. It’s perhaps best if you don’t stop and think about things too much, as cracks in the narrative will undoubtedly appear. Instead, sit back and enjoy what is a very entertaining spin on a subgenre that looked to be at saturation point.