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Better Watch Out - Rounding up the Usual Suspects
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Better Watch Out
SIFF's capsule summary: "Home Alone meets Funny Games in a true nightmare before Christmas, as a disturbed home invader menaces a quick-witted babysitter and her cunning 12-year-old charge who is harboring a rabid age-inappropriate crush." (Australia, 2017, 99 minutes, including 14 minute short film [not shown at press screening])
SIFF link: Better Watch Out

This film – made in Australia but set in a generic US suburb – starts like a Christmas comedy. Parents Deandra (Virginia Madsen) and Robert (Patrick Warburton) await babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), who will take care of their adolescent son Luke (Levi Miller). Luke and his best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) surf the Internet, where Luke reads that the best way to seduce a woman is to watch a scary horror movie with her. Garrett insists that Ashley is much too old to be interested in Luke, but Luke wants to try anyway. When Ashley arrives, Deandra and Robert leave, confident that all will go well while they're out at a holiday party, since she's been their usual babysitter for years.

Following his ridiculous Internet-inspired plan Luke suggests watching a horror movie with Ashley. They settle in front of the television. But soon strange things start to happen. A lighted Santa Claus figure moves. There are strange phone calls. Are they just scaring themselves because they're watching a scary movie? Or are outside events starting to get even scarier than the movie? Will Ashley's boyfriend Ricky (Aleks Mikic) or her ex-boyfriend Jeremy (Dacre Montgomery) save the day?

3 Poor I sometimes like horror movies, including serious films like Rosemary's Baby and The Shining, and horror comedies such as Black Sheep and Fido. But I'm pretty picky, and I don't care for slasher movies, torture porn, and the like. But this movie aspired to be a horror comedy, so I stuck around in hopes of something like Black Sheep. No such luck.

I can't properly describe what's so bad about the story (by Zack Khan) and screenplay (by Khan and director Chris Peckover) without spoilers, except to say that a major character had at least one huge change in motives.

At the beginning of the film, Luke is established as a horny adolescent with a ridiculously juvenile plan to seduce Ashley. But the scary events outside are an elaborate plot he has orchestrated, with the aid of Garrett. They simulate a home invasion, and get out one of Robert's poorly-secured guns to defend against the fake invader. He disables the household Internet and tricks Ashley into losing her phone. Although Ashley is justifiably terrified, she's still not interested in sex with Luke. The underage drinking they indulge in doesn't help with the seduction either.

Later, Garrett has second thoughts about the dangerous mischief, and tries to talk Luke out of it, particularly after Luke drugs Ashley and duct tapes her to an armchair. Luke persists, and threatens to reveal the champagne consumption. She still refuses to let him fondle her breasts, so he fondles her anyway.

Suddenly, Luke's motives change from sexually abusing Ashley to murder. He texts her boyfriend Ricky and ex-boyfriend Jeremy to lure them to the house, manages to subdue Ricky and tape him into another armchair, subdues Jeremy and blackmails him into writing a letter of apologies. Then the murders start: he kills Ricky with a heavy bucket of paint, hangs Jeremy from a tree in a staged suicide, kills Garrett with a shotgun, stabs Ashley in the neck, and then rubs all the murder weapons on Jeremy's hands. (He apologizes to Garrett as he kills him.) Then he slips into bed.

The only clue that Luke might have had secret murderous thoughts is that he eventually reveals that he once murdered Garrett's pet hamster. If the film had foreshadowed his dark side, such as by having the parents thank Ashley for being the only babysitter who could deal with Luke, his change in motive from sex to murder might have made sense. I still would have disliked the movie, but the giant, fatal (pun intended) plot hole would have been resolved.

This final paragraph isn't necessary for analysis, but as long as I'm behind a spoiler warning, I might as well finish describing the story:
Later the parents return and discover the murders. Luke, upstairs pretending to be asleep, rouses at the screams. Police and emergency crews arrive, and discover that Ashley isn't quite dead, and rush her to the hospital. Maybe Luke won't get away with it after all.

There are plenty of implausible elements in the story, but most fall within the range of creative license for a horror movie. However, the giant plot hole I described in the spoilers is a fatal flaw. I rate the story and screenplay poor.

The directing is somewhat better. The scenes are well staged, it makes good use of color, and sometimes the film even have a degree of suspense. But it fails on the comedy side; the only humor is in the cheerful Christmas music, a joke that wears out very quickly. I rate the directing almost good.

The acting is also pretty respectable. Madsen and Warburton are good in their small roles. DeJonge is good in her leading role. Miller is good in his leading role, in spite of what the story gives him. Oxenbould is fair as the geeky friend, and directing may be partly to blame for his shortcomings. Mikic is almost good and Montgomery good in their small roles. Bit players (carolers) are fair, but directing may be to blame.

Overall, I rate the film poor; the faults of the story overwhelm all the things about the film that are adequate.

Languages: English.

Rating: I don't think this film has a US rating (yet), but I'd guess it will rate an "R", for violence, torture, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, and foul language.

Screening: 2 pm, Pacific Place (room 4).
Audience: a typical SIFF press screening crowd, around 100, about 285 seats (estimated capacity).

Snacks: tea from home.

Ads and annoucements: no ads at press screenings; SIFF volunteers "R" and "J" provide announcements.

Notes to myself:

SIFF statistics: 60 films (59 features, one short), 59 slots (including one panel), five parties. ("J": 39 features and seven shorts, four parties.)

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