Monday, December 25, 2017

Holiday Horror: Better Watch Out (2017)

* spoilers *

It's the Christmas season and 17 year old Ashley is babysitting 12 year old Luke when his parents go out for the evening. He's a bit old for a babysitter, but he sleepwalks and can't be left alone at night. The evening starts out a little bumpy as Luke is pushy and annoying until an intruder enters the house. They throw a brick through a window that says, "u leave u die." Luke and Ashley are cut off from the outside and have to rely on each other to survive this ordeal.

Better Watch Out is one of the best Christmas horror movies I've seen. It starts out with a tried and true formula: a teenage babysitter and her charge are under siege by an intruder. The very beginning of the movie invokes dread with a black car following Ashley as she walks to Luke's house. When she gets to the house, the rich parents are hilariously hateful to each other, Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton in tiny but impactful roles. Luke starts off as incredibly annoying as he chugs champagne to impress and awkwardly seduce Ashley, supporting his beginning conversation with his best friend Garrett where they objectify women and talk about how to have sex with them.

The home invasion aspect feels familiar and I start to make mental predictions about what's going to happen, which are all wrong. Ashley and Luke sneak around the house, dodging the masked intruder with a shotgun. Ashley is terrified, but Luke acts like it's another opportunity to prove how manly he is. He seems to be feigning bravery in the face of real danger. The intruder subtly leaves signs that he's watching them like ordering pizza when he knew they wanted to but hadn't don it yet, calling them with a Scream-like question, facing a glowing Santa towards the window when Ashley placed just outside the door, and leaving a knife in the tire of her car where he knew they would see it. Then the identity of the intruder is discovered due to Ashley's attention to detail and the movie takes a significant turn.

The film goes from a home invasion to a hostage situation. Garrett was the invader, but Luke masterminded the entire thing. All of that detail that the intruder designed was his, showing his conniving and intelligent nature. Ashley is tied up, after Luke slaps her and causes her to fall down the stairs, and she tries to logically lay out for them the consequences so they will let her go. Luke enjoys his power over Ashley as he grossly touches her and forces her to play truth or dare. When Ashley's boyfriend and ex-boyfriend arrive (and then die), it's clear that Luke has much more in mind than he has shown. Garrett has no idea Luke would murder someone, but he follows his friend anyway. It's what he's always done.

I was mildly annoyed by Luke at the beginning of the film, but completely infuriated by him after the reveal. Luke is a sociopath with absolutely no regard or empathy for everyone else. He cleverly combines this with his privileged background and the sickly, stunted persona he has built up over the years. In his everyday life, he uses all of this plus charisma to get out of trouble at every turn whether it's getting Garrett out of detention or killing Garrett's gerbil. Whenever anything goes wrong and he loses control, he yells that someone made him do something, mentally absolving him of all blame. Even though he's completely naive, he acts confident that everything he does will turn out fine because it always has. Luke and Garrett talk about sexually assaulting Ashley and then making her forget as if it had never happened. The way we as a society treat young privileged white men and the very different way women are treated is exactly why he thinks and acts like this. 

Ashley, on the other hand, is right about to leave for college. She makes measured, though out decisions at every turn in the film. If it wasn't safe to move, she quietly waited, looking weak and complacent to her captors. When logic doesn't work with Luke, she pits him and Garrett against each other. She knows both well and takes advantage of the secrets she knows about them. When her boyfriend stumbles in (much better in person than what we had heard about him), she isn't sentimental about leaving together. Whoever gets free first gets out of there and brings help. I felt so much anger and frustration for her as well as admiration for how she kept a cool head through the whole thing. Olivia DeJonge, the actresse portraying Ashley, captures reactions very well. Much of the gory violence is off camera and we only get the horror due to other characters' reactions to the event.

Better Watch Out is a refreshing film. It starts off very much like The Babysitter and veers off into its own, much more interesting direction. All of the characters (except Garrett who stays a loser stoner kid) are dynamic and nuanced. Although Luke is an unrealistic version of a child, he still makes human mistakes. This film also puts ridiculous humor right next to tense and uncomfortable scenes that make it border a horror comedy. It's a must watch, especially for Christmas.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

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