‘Better Watch Out’: Unwrapping a Complicated Christmas Horror Movie [Young Blood]

Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios. The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

This article contains major spoilers!

A vicious and disturbing Christmas movie like Better Watch Out is bound to stir up contention. While some viewers are downright delighted after witnessing the excessive evildoing in this misbehaving comedy, others are put off by it. Regardless of what side you fall on, though, your opinion unquestionably has all to do with the depraved 12-year-old at the center of this yule-themed horror movie.

From the look of things, Better Watch Out was another home-invasion movie but with dark humor and young characters fighting back Home Alone style. The first act lives up to initial expectations; Olivia DeJonge‘s 17-year-old character Ashley protects her clients’ son Luke (Levi Miller) when she thinks someone has broken into his home. A round of scary hide-and-seek lasts a good fifteen minutes before the story takes a sharp turn. Putting two and two together, Ashley eventually realizes her precocious ward has orchestrated this entire scenario with his best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould). No sooner does Ashley figure out their plan does she end up duct-taped to a chair and with a concussion. What else this evening has in store for the babysitter has to be seen to be believed.

Before diving into the corrupt mind of Luke Lerner, director Chris Peckover should be applauded for some of the finest deception in a moderately recent horror movie. Truly — hats off for the trickery seen toward the movie’s start. Not to mention Peckover and co-writer Zack Kahn put a clever spin on the ‘the calls are coming from inside the house’ idea we all know by heart by now. At this point, we can all agree it’s challenging to breathe life into something as routine as home invasions. Yet, Better Watch Out tweaks the formula just enough to make it refreshing as well as unpredictable.

Now, as for the rest of the movie, viewers are split about everything that occurs after the reveal. The creepy phone calls, mislaid objects and threatening messages — the tropes intrinsic to these sorts of movies are dished out in near succession prior to the plot twist. From there you have a very different movie on your hands. Ashley remains a victim, but she now has to contend with a morally bankrupt boy as opposed to your garden variety intruder. She would have been better off with a gun-toting, masked killer.

Luke’s true nature is not shocking. After all, he gets incredibly possessive of Ashley before things go south. Luke’s original plan of drunkenly seducing Ashley, who is already wary because of boyfriend woes, blows up in his face when she instantly recoils and labels his mortifying advances “inappropriate.” What causes people to unplug is the next phase of Luke’s scheme to win over Ashley; he thinks faking a break-in and saving the day is all it takes to make the babysitter smitten. Instead, she completely rails into Luke by calling him “delusional” and “mental” in front of Garrett. The harsh yet valid scolding sends him into a rage that ends with Ashley unconscious at the bottom of the staircase.

Home-invasion movies, much like other orders of the horror genre, tend to give the victims a chance at survival. Better Watch Out, on the other hand, makes the curious choice of restraining DeJonge’s character to a chair for almost the remainder of the movie. Ashley is of course not the only one strapped down; her boyfriend Ricky (Aleks Mikic) joins her and gets the brunt of Luke’s sadism. However, Ashley is the appointed ‘final girl’ who we instinctively empathize with and root for. She prevails even when the odds are against her, but the journey getting there is not easy to watch.

Horror fans have been known to cheer on the killers in their favorite movies. They revel in the senseless carnage caused by the likes of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees. That distinct reverence for cold-blooded carnage is absent when talking about someone like Luke, though. Miller’s character does not hide behind a mask. On the contrary, Luke’s immorality is on full display. This entitled, egomaniacal kid with a cracked voice and unfeeling disposition hits close to home in one way or another. Whether you know someone like him, or the sight of him is a reminder of all the misogyny that goes unchecked, Luke is bound to hit a nerve.

The core of Luke’s character reflects a troubling part of our reality that was pushed to the spotlight not all that long ago. The movie’s timing is obviously coincidental but also unfortunate. It comes as no surprise that a movie about a boy torturing a girl because she rejected him would lead to mixed and concerned reactions.

There has been a lot of discourse lately about unethical characters. While the mainstream is producing more moralizing media these days, the horror genre continues to do what it does best. This occasionally results in arguments that echo the days of ‘video nasties.’ It goes without saying, Better Watch Out is not a feel-good movie with upstanding characters and choices. It is intentionally problematic and mean-spirited. Even so, the plot curveball isn’t universally liked since some people signed up for a different movie.

Luke clashes with a burgeoning desire for more virtuous characters, but we have to remember, he is a villain. Luke is designed to be loathsome and without scruples. A filmmaker telling stories about problematic characters is not necessarily an endorsement of their actions or beliefs. Better Watch Out does not condone Luke’s misdeeds either seeing as Ashley repeatedly denounces his crimes and refuses to let him get away with them. The conclusion even implies Luke probably isn’t going to get off scot-free. Better yet, we’re teased with a potential and sorely needed sequel where Luke receives the karmic comeuppance only a bad egg like him deserves.