Better Watch Out (aka Safe Neighborhood) opens with a medium close-up of a grinning snowman. The scene is typical American Christmas-time suburbia: families out in the cold, kids making snow angels and playing with sleds. Yet as ‘Joy To The World’ plays on the soundtrack, there is also cruelty: a passing boy wipes the smile – indeed the whole head – off that snowman with a baseball bat, only to be pursued by a screaming girl.
“It’s tonight or never,” Luke Lerner (Levi Miller) tells his best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) inside. An only child to his loving parents (Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton), Luke is on the cusp of adolescence – 12 years old but, as he insists, “13 in a few weeks” – and though in many way still very much a child, he craves experience of a more adult kind. As high school senior Ashley (Olivia de Jonge), who has known Luke since he was eight, comes round to babysit him one last time before she moves to Pittsburgh, Luke decides that this is his final chance to act on his massive crush for her, and so sets about trying to woo her with alcohol, candles (for ‘good ambiance’) and smooth talk. Obviously out of his league, Luke is as naïve as he is intelligent, and Ashley is quick to cut short his clumsily executed intentions.
Yet as they sit on the sofa watching a slasher together, there is someone outside, making creepy silent calls to the house, messing with the two inside, and watching and waiting for the right moment to come in. A long, tense night of deadly cat and mouse is in store for Luke and Ashley.
Offering a smart mix of elements from Home Alone (1990), Scream (1996) and The Aggression Scale (2012) and countless Yuletide horrors to confound as much as guide the viewer, Chris Peckover’s follow-up to Undocumented (2010) is a twisty home invasion thriller not a million miles from the subversive tendencies of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011) – it even takes place entirely in and around a house expressly next door to the ‘Wingard’ home.
As both Ashley and Luke prove highly resourceful in fighting for their lives and outmanoeuvring whatever the night brings, the film explores forms of psychopathy and deep misogyny which are fostered by the ignorance of youth and the disconnection of the online world, and which, if they take root early enough, may be beyond eradication. The result is a tensely un-merry Christmas, painted in yellow and red, that impishly plays upon the audience’s most naturally ingrained sympathies. It is also darkly funny from the get-go.
Better Watch Out was seen and reviewed at Fantasia International Film Festival. For more information, visit the website.