The story starts with typical teen boy capers with Luke (Levi Miller) and buddy Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) talking about a lady they’d like to know a little better. Problem is, said damsel is way out of their league. This quickly ceases to be the main concern as it seems something with less than romantic intentions is outside the house.
Better Watch Out is a hugely welcome Christmas horror precisely because it is so unexpected. That it is only Peckover’s second feature is remarkable. It sets up genre tropes before dashing them like broken baubles into a fire and makes something fresh from those sparkling smithereens (hat tip to Olivia DeJounge – her Ashley is more calmly resilient than Rudolph on the big night out). The monster is something so believably bad to the bone that when the action gets nasty the resounding silence, cutaways and palpable emotion from the other characters magnify the shock because we automatically use that little-remembered muscle called imagination to paint the picture for us. This internal focus also makes it easier to follow the steps of the plot and appreciate the personalities on show. Miller (Peter in Pan) brings burning realism to a difficult role for someone of his age. He doesn’t always manage the intensity arguably required, but he does more than enough to keep the film afloat. Oxenbould’s chirpy-derping Garrett swiftly brings up the rear and prevents the film from becoming perhaps too grim for the Goodwill season’s standard audience.
Set design and decoration by Richard Hobbs and Mark Dawson are fantastic. The film focuses on the contrast between the villain’s dead-souled stare and the trappings of the family home complete with rooftop reindeer. You really do get a sense of space in which people live together without really knowing each other through the chasm that is the teenage years. It even manages to subvert stereotypes to make you root for unlikely characters along the way. What’s more, the realisation that there won’t be a Home Alone-style villain’s guffaw to let the audience off the hook at every transition encourages us to will the action further so the story can reach its logical conclusion. And it is all entirely logical.
Better Watch Out plays the audience at their own game. It pleasures and punishes them for trying to pre-guess its gifts. It is deeply unnerving and adorably sinister.
BETTER WATCH OUT / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: CHRIS PECKOVER / SCREENPLAY: ZACH KAHN, CHRIS PECKOVER / STARRING: PATRICK WARBURTON, VIRGINIA MADSEN, DACRE MONTGOMERY, OLIVIA DEJONGE / RELEASE DATE: TBC