In recent years, subverting audience expectations seems to have become more and more difficult. Whether this is due to the sheer amount of movies available at our fingertips or the fact that cinephiles have smartened up to genre topes over the years is up for debate, but the result is still the same. Very rarely do movies truly seem to stun us anymore, but that is precisely what Chris Peckover’s pitch-black horror-comedy Better Watch Out does, en route to becoming the most fascinating and subversive home invasion film since You’re Next.
The setup is reminiscent of a romantic teen comedy from the 1980s: Luke (Levi Miller) is a twelve-year-old boy with a crush on his slightly older babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). With Christmas approaching, and Ashley planning on moving out of town, Luke sees their last night together as his last chance to make a move. But in the midst of his attempt to woo his crush, someone attempts to break into his home — and then everything goes haywire.
To reveal what happens next would ruin much of the brilliance of Better Watch Out, but rest assured that it is one of the ballsiest and darkest turns in recent memory. Peckover manages to keep things extremely fun and entertaining while also being extremely dark and occasionally upsetting. Thanks to the brilliant and mildly uncomfortable chemistry between Miller and DeJonge, it’s easy to become emotionally invested in the film, which is quite important to the success of the heart-wrenching and surprisingly suspenseful final act.
Featuring some of the most refined and honest performances from young actors in recent years, Better Watch Out manages to feel both genuine and completely bonkers all at once. Often, it’s as if your little brother, his best friend, and your next door neighbor all found themselves in a larger-than-life situation. The events of the film are far out of the ordinary, but the characters themselves remain extremely believable throughout. Even amidst the more shocking moments in the film, Peckover keeps everything just grounded enough to feel real while letting it get completely out of hand on an entertainment level. It’s actually quite a lot of fun.
That is never more apparent than in how Peckover and company take full advantage of their wintertime Christmas setting. From the beautiful and twisted use of Christmas lights to the snowy atmosphere and the creepy jolliness of the whole production, Better Watch Out is an inherent holiday horror-comedy, and we can always use more of those. Add in hilarious performances from Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen and you’ve got one of the coolest movies of the year thus far, once again proving that if your movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s bound to provide a raucous good time for your audience.
This review originally ran as part of our Fantastic Fest 2016 coverage. Better Watch Out arrives in theaters and on VOD October 6th through Well Go USA.