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'Better Watch Out' is a Christmas horror hidden gem

This Christmas, check out a much more demented take on Home Alone.

Better Watch Out (2017)

In the world of Christmas horror films, there are roughly two approaches. There are the horror films that depend directly on the Christmas season for their plot — like Santa's Slay or Silent Night, Deadly Night — and there are horror films that could take place any time, but use the backdrop of Christmas to add an extra layer of festive menace to the proceedings. That latter category has produced some of the best holiday horror ever, including gems like Black Christmas, simply by creating a clear contrast between the bright lights and happy faces and the terror going on behind closed doors. 

In this category, Better Watch Out remains a particularly effective standout, even if the film hasn't yet risen to the recognition of some of its Christmas horror peers. Originally released in 2016 and now streaming on Peacock just in time for the holiday season, Chris Peckover's film about a wild night for a babysitter and her precocious charge goes to places you're not expecting, and then just keeps going. 

It's no accident that when we first meet 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) he and his best friend (Ed Oxenbould) are discussing the plausibility of certain injuries in the Home Alone franchise. Right away, Peckover and co-writer Zack Kahn are drawing a parallel between their film and that other holiday classic, which isn't a horror movie but still features no small amount of gruesome injuries inflicted by a boy with... let's say a questionable grasp on human empathy. They're setting the stage, telling us something about where Better Watch Out might dare to go, and it's a very effective opening gambit. 

But that's not all that's on Luke's mind. He's also concocting a scheme to get romantically involved with his much older babysitter, 17-year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), before she and her family move out of town for good. So, when Ashley comes over to babysit while his parents are out at a Christmas party, Luke puts his plan into effect, doing his best to convince Ashley that he's the guy for her. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he suddenly finds himself working to protect her from an intruder outside who's slashed the car tires and warned them that if they leave, they'll die. 

Who's behind this strange holiday home invasion, and what they actually want, is something you'll have to discover for yourself if you've never seen the film, but the overall vibe that follows is something along the lines of Home Alone meets The Strangers, with all the tension and dark comedy that suggests. Within that tone, Peckover and Kahn craft what begins as an entertaining yet somewhat formulaic story. It's clear right away what Luke wants, and why Ashley resists it, and we settle in early to understanding and appreciating that dynamic. Then the violence begins, and things get very unpredictable, very quickly. 

It's hard to talk too much about that violence without veering far into spoiler territory, but however far you think Better Watch Out is going to go with its holiday carnage, it very likely goes further, pushing not just the violence factory into higher gear, but the psychological tension as well. The film reveals, little by little, that the power dynamics at work in the story aren't what we thought they are, and that things are actually much more twisted than the setup would have you believe. Throw in Peckover's skilled handling of the Christmas decor and the snowy landscape outside, and you've got an undeniable level of menace juxtaposed with pure seasonal joy to great effect. Miller and DeJonge, for their parts, throw themselves into the twisty, satisfyingly deranged story, and that makes us all the more invested.

So, if you still haven't seen Better Watch Out and you're looking for a little Christmas carnage this December, head over to Peacock and give the film a watch. 

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