Wednesday 20 December 2017

Better Watch Out (US/Australia 2016 - Dir Chris Peckover)

Chris Peckover's witty, deceptive suburban nightmare Better Watch Out (which I saw under its original title, the more prosaic Safe Neighbourhood) is both a Home Alone / Funny Games / Scream mashup and a rather interesting take on the state of US maleness.

Luke (Levi Miller) is a 12 going on 13 year old living a somewhat privileged life. While his well to do parents attend a Christmas party, babysitter Ashley (Olivia de Jonge), who is five years older and on whom Luke has a crush, comes over to watch him. But it seems that everyone's interested in Ashley, including a couple of older boys, and she's made plans to leave town for a while; Luke only has eyes for Ashley, but when his attempts to impress his babysitter by rescuing her from a gun toting home invader fail - a bit of staging involving his friend Garrett as the masked housebreaker - it all threatens to get difficult for the boys. But then the tables are turned.

Part of the twisted pleasure of watching Better Watch Out unfold is that it functions both in a rather meta way but also as an effective thriller in its own right. There's an amorality on display which clashes with the squeaky clean visuals and clean cut cast - very Wes Craven. There's also some clever genre nods (at one point one of the victims gets a paint bucket swung into his face, while another comments that he's been "Home Aloned" and indeed the movie plays like a more sinister version of Chris Columbus's 1990 film, which of course includes that very scene).

But there's something more than simple homage at work. Better Watch Out gradually transforms, after the first half hour of homely snow scenes (although it was actually filmed in Australia) and light comedy, into something increasingly and insidiously darker. While it's difficult to go into more specifics without spoiling the plot (and yes it is a film that you are best knowing nothing about before seeing it) the nastiness of later events is tempered by consistently good acting and a whip smart script; also having the violence occur mostly off screen (surely a nod to movies like Funny Games) makes it a more unsettling watch than I expected.

Levi Miller and Olivia de Jonge make a great cat and mouse pairing; Miller is creepy, chilling but not unlikeable, and de Jonge, with her unattainable girl next door beauty, transforms well into the film's 'final girl.' There are fine supports too from Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton as Luke's parents, and from Ed Oxenbould as the gullible Garrett.

For only a second movie, Chris Peckover's directing is assured and never misses a beat. This is a director to watch and one who has delivered a very cool addition to the Christmas fright flick canon. Go see.

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