Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Chris Peckover
Stars: Levi Miller, Olivia De Jonge, Ed Oxenbould, Dacre Montgomery, Aleks Mikic, Patrick Warburton, Virginia Madsen.
Home Alone with a body count? This blackly comic, dark and subversive variation on the home invasion drama is a bit like a warped cross between Home Alone, Michael Haneke’s disturbing Funny Games, Bob Clark’s 1970s slasher thriller Black Christmas, and the 80s horror/slasher thriller Silent Night, Deadly Night. And it is unexpectedly entertaining.
The film is set during the lead up to Christmas in a quiet, snow covered suburban street. Luke, a 12-year old (played by Levi Miller) is left in the care of 17-year old Ashley (Olivia De Jonge), the regular babysitter, while his parents go out for the evening. Luke has a bit of a crush on Ashley and has plans to make his feelings known to her tonight. With a little help from his best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould, from Paper Planes, etc) he has orchestrated a night that he hopes will help him get to first base with her. But first he has to convince her to dump her boyfriend. When a mysterious masked figure throws a brick through a window and delivers a menacing threat – “If you leave the house, you’re dead” – the night takes a turn into violence and fear.
With the phone lines cut, Luke and Ashley must defend their home against a mysterious attacker. But Ashley soon discovers that this is not a straight forward home invasion, and that something far more sinister is happening in this quiet suburban street.
Originally known as Safe Neighbourhood, Better Watch Out has been written and directed by Chris Peckover (Undocumented), who seems to have a great understanding of the tropes of the horror thriller genre. This is only his second feature film, but he handles the material with assurance, and he ensures that it is not easy to predict where the film is heading. Macaulay Culkin used a paint tin for comic effect in Home Alone; here Miller uses a paint tin for a different purpose. Peckover tones down the gore and overt violence, but intersperses the material with some nicely placed and well-timed jump scares. He ratchets up the tension effectively over the relatively brisk running time of 85 minutes.
Peckover co-wrote the script with Zack Kahn, a former actor, and their deft script makes the slightly familiar scenario seem fresh. There are plenty of touches of ironic humour here that will recall films like Scream. The pair maintain a deft balance between horror and humour. And there is a wonderful, perfect final scene that works a treat.
The three leads are all excellent in their roles and show why they are amongst the best of the young talent here. Rising young Australian actor Miller has been certainly building up a solid resume in the past couple of years – he played the title role in Pan, opposite Hugh Jackman; he starred in the coming of age drama Jasper Jones, based on the beloved Australian novel; and he starred in Red Dog: True Blue, the sequel to the Australian feel good drama. Cast against type in this warped, illegitimate cousin of the family friendly Home Alone, he delivers a strong, slightly sinister performance. He seems to enjoy tapping into his darker side here. He also shares a nice chemistry with Oxenbould.
De Jonge’s Ashley is put through an emotional and physical wringer here, but the young actress brings a feisty quality to her performance. Oxenbould plays yet another variation on the familiar awkward, gawky teen that he has played to good effect in recent movies like the quirky local drama The Butterfly Tree. The film reunites Oxenbould and De Jonge, who previously played siblings in M Night Shyamalan’s creepy The Visit. US imports Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen fill the role of Luke’s parents, Robert and Deanna, whose presence bookends the mayhem. Dacre Montgomery and Aleks Mikic fill small roles as Ashley’s past and present boyfriends, who meet nasty ends. Â
This US/Australian co-production juxtaposes the usual Christmas warmth and snow-covered environment with a bit of blood and gore. The film was shot at the Fox Studios in Sydney, but Richard Hobbs’ production design has replicated a typical quite American suburban neighbourhood, giving the winter wonderland setting the look and feel of many American Christmas movies. The film feels distinctly American with its setting, its tone and slick visuals. Most of the action takes place within the house itself, and the film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Carl Robertson (Manny Lewis, The Osiris Child, etc), who makes the most of the claustrophobic interiors. And unlike a lot of horror films in which most of the action takes place in darkened rooms and shadows, here much of the interior is brightly lit and colourful.
While Better Watch Out may not be destined to become a perennial Christmas favourite like Home Alone, Kahn’s script is witty and entertaining enough to make it better than many other seasonal offerings. This is one of those films that works best if you see it with a like-minded audience who share a love of being scared in a darkened cinema.