‘Better Watch Out’ a surprise gift of holiday-themed horror (Movie review)


 give a soft recommend to “Better Watch Out” – now available to stream for 99 cents on Amazon Prime – for anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer. The twist is great, and the rest of the film is unusual enough to be compelling. But those who have seen the trailer can skip it, as they already know the whole movie, just in condensed form.

Directed by Chris Peckover, a co-writer with Zack Kahn, “Better Watch Out” starts off as a home-invasion story in the vein of “The Strangers,” except with a weirdly – almost intriguingly — off-base tone. Teenage babysitter Ashley (“The Visit’s” Olivia DeJonge) and 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) settle in for a horror movie on a winter evening, and he’s getting awkwardly fresh with his older crush. Then noises come from outside, shadows move across the windows … followed by a threat via telephone: If they leave the house, they’re dead.

It’s not as scary as “The Strangers” or even the opening scenes of the various “Screams,” but it’s more serious than, say, “Home Alone.” With a dash of holiday spirit from the carols and the Christmas decorations, “Better Watch Out” sets its hook.

Those who have seen the trailer can skip it, as they already know the whole movie, just in condensed form.

And then there’s a twist that requires a SPOILER WARNING.

Luke, it turns out, is a little psychopath, and Miller is flesh-crawlingly good playing this character. He has staged the whole shebang with his friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould, the other kid from “The Visit”).

“Better Watch Out’s” tone is partly weird on purpose, and partly because it needs an R rating instead of an NC-17. Luke’s sexual maneuvers on a tied-up Ashley are implied, not starkly shown. Same with the violence that ensues later. The trailer (which I wisely watched after the fact) suggests this is some sort of dark comedy, like “Gremlins” or “Krampus,” but it’s significantly more dark than comedic, perhaps because the monster is a child.

It’s a horror film, but not in the sense that you’re scared by certain moments, or even by the whole scenario – which seems extremely unlikely, even if Luke’s advance planning is fairly clever by movie-plot standards. (At one point, someone almost gets away to call for help – but they go unheard, since the carolers are singing too loudly.) But the very existence of psychopaths is horrific, and “Better Watch Out” doesn’t allow us to escape him.

“American Psycho” this ain’t, as we can’t really get inside Luke’s head – since we’re supposed to be surprised by his nature — but that’s the whole wiggins-inducing thing about people who have this disorder: We can’t, and don’t want to, relate to their lack of empathy. It calls to mind a Season 1 “Angel” episode where the whole explanation for a kid’s evil actions is that he was born without a soul. The idea just sits there, creeping a viewer out.

I felt uneasy after viewing “Better Watch Out,” and while I may not have liked the movie in the traditional sense, I can’t say it’s not effective at what it sets out to do.