17 year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) comes to babysit 12 year-old Luke Lerner (Levi Miller) while his parents attend a Christmas function, one last time before she leaves the area. After Luke tries to seduce her and begins acting erratically, Ashley becomes increasingly concerned with his odd behaviour - but her night only gets worse when armed, masked men enter the home and she must fight to keep both of them alive. Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery co-star in Chris Peckover's first major feature-length which is adapted from Zack Kahn's story and co-written by the pair.
'Better Watch Out' borrows its title from the popular Christmas song 'Santa Claus is Coming To Town' but it inadvertently acts as a warning to consumers approaching the film's theatrical trailer: Better Watch Out (For That Spoiler-Packed Trailer) may have been a more appropriate title. Having avoided the marketing myself (beyond some striking posters), the film's major rug-from-under-feet moment landed with mighty force and jaw-dropping effect, but I would have been unimpressed having witnessed the trailer stuffing in every spoiler under the sun before seeing the feature-length itself. Better Watch Out may be the year's biggest culprit in spoiler-heavy marketing and I stress the importance of avoiding it. Even just generally though, this film is best enjoyed blind, so do proceed with caution.
With that polite notice out of the way, we can delve in to how giddy and enjoyable Peckover's Yuletide-themed horror is. It's an 89 minute blast of adrenaline and tension and excitement, beginning somewhat predictably before throwing twists and turns of all varieties at the audience. Peckover and Zahn's screenplay has no problem throwing red herrings into the mix that may appear frustrating in the moment, but clarity emerges upon reflection and the film's true meaning develops as we descend into chaos. Rather witty if slightly clumsy at times, the dialogue is solid but hardly the most important element here, signalling advancement in the plot but sometimes holding it back with heavy-handed explanations and jarring characterisation. Its exploration of thematic content is thankfully more secure, considering toxic masculinity, twisted youth and - in a way - media desensitisation effectively. It's certainly smarter than it may seem on the surface, packed with exciting flourishes and detail.
Peckover's direction has a sheen to it, with some pockets of genuinely fantastic film-making evident. He enhances the all-important tension terrifically, dialling it up notch by notch and crafting a delightfully-twisted atmosphere, heightened further by Brian Cachia's effective soundtrack. Alongside some effectively awkward comedy and some flat-out scary moments (although the jump scares get a little too regular in the first act), Better Watch Out is a potent blend of genres and tones, presented to us in a tight, sparkly package. The decorations are expertly emphasised by Carl Robertson's cinematography which creates a stark contrast when the blood splatters come thick and fast, truly soiling the meaning of Christmas.
Uniformly solid across the board, the performances are efficient and well-handled, notably stable as we travel through the varying tones and genres. Our leads shine especially bright, with both Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller impressing as the babysitter and babysit-ee. DeJonge is poised and controlled as Ashley, but allows her fear to seep in as the threat looms larger. It's a well-calibrated performance - she's likeable but flawed - and you find yourself rooting for her throughout. Miller is tremendous (if let down slightly by lengthy, unneeded dialogue) providing a biting, disconcerting turn as the lovestruck Luke. He handles the character whiplash efficiently and looks set to go far as one of Hollywood's best breakout actors. Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery are fine in a supporting capacity, bolstering an ensemble packed with career-boosting turns.
If you've managed to avoid the marketing for Better Watch Out, you have a real treat in store; while you might still have a good time having seen the spoiler-filled trailers, the frothy enjoyment will probably be diluted and the thrill of the chase less effective. Certainly one of the best festive-horrors and Christmas-themed films of the year, Better Watch Out will have you on the edge of your seat throughout the delirious twists and shocking turns. Complete with fantastic performances, strong direction and aesthetic, as well as a decent script and refreshing Christmas-angle, Better Watch Out is a terrific blood-covered, yuletide corker that will paint Home Alone in a whole new light.