The weather outside might be frightful, but staying indoors is far from delightful. Indeed, in Christmas slasher story Better Watch Out, the gifts and games are of the murderous kind. With his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) heading out for some seasonal cheer, 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) and his pal Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) are left home alone in the suburbs with 17-year-old babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). If you've seen any kind of horror movie, Christmas-themed or not,you'll know that it doesn't turn out well.
Far from walking merrily through familiar territory, however, writer-director Chris Peckover and his co-scribe Zack Kahn have a few surprises in store for fans of festive thrills. Their teenage trio aren't exactly setting booby traps for burglars, but nor are they simply hiding out as a knife-wielding maniac wreaks havoc. Even before the weapons come out, things aren't exactly going smoothly. Luke is soon downing champagne in his desperate attempt to seduce Ashley, despite the fact that she's preoccupied with arguing on the phone with her boyfriend. Oh, and someone is out to kill them. Someone inside the house.
If Better Watch Out was a Yuletide beverage, it'd be spiked eggnog: you think you know what you're getting, but after a couple of sips it turns out to be something very different. And while it's best for viewers to experience the movie's twists and turns for themselves, savouring the performances that go with them is heartily recommended. Miller (Jasper Jones), Oxenbould (Paper Planes) and DeJonge (The Visit) embrace their multifaceted roles with relish, playing to type before suddenly veering in unexpected directions. The three local actors are a boon to the US-Australian co-production, which is set in the States but was shot in Sydney.
With found footage film Undocumented also on his resume, Peckover has clearly seen more than a few scary movies, and wears his expertise on his sleeve. Better Watch Out is filled with overt nods to genre tropes — but then again, aren't most horror films these days? Here, winking at convention heightens the tongue-in-cheek vibe, although it also occasionally proves to be a crutch. In some moments, the movie's meta-references are smart, inspired and laugh-out-loud hilarious. In others, they mosey a little too close to cartoonish, particularly as the story starts to wind up.
But the film fares far better when it comes to its treatment of Christmas flicks, burrowing into the darkness behind the supposedly happiest time of the year. Toxic Yuletide fantasies, toxic domesticity, toxic masculinity — Peckover and Kahn find time to poke and prod all three amidst their nasty pranks, hormonal teens and festive tunes. For fans of horror comedy, Better Watch Out is one seriously warped present beneath the Christmas tree.