Honestly, do we need any more movies about the early warning signs of a serial killer and the environment that breeds such psychopaths?
Honestly, do we need any more movies about the early warning signs of a serial killer and the environment that breeds such psychopaths? The obsessive fixation and lack of empathy are common knowledge at this point, and unfortunately we see the results of these grown killers’ actions all too frequently. While it’s somewhat unfair to view the horror flick Better Watch Out (aka Safe Neighborhood) in this light, it is both a product of its societal context and judged within those parameters. Despite director Chris Peckover’s wishes, scary movies made for nothing more than spooky Halloween enjoyment lose their entertainment value when they only remind us of the realities of a society that allows such unchecked psychosis to fester and boil over. What starts out as a movie conforming to stereotypes of gross teen horniness devolves even deeper into female objectification with torture imagery and victim blaming.
Better Watch Out is driven by the actions of Luke (Levi Miller) and, to a lesser extent, his best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould). The movie opens with their jocular banter about wanting to fuck Luke’s babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). They’re only 12, yet they have elaborate fantasies of coercing her into sex. Bear in mind, this is the babysitter that Luke’s father (Patrick Warburton) greets by saying “You are breathtaking.” Totally normal thing for an adult to say to a teenage girl.
At any rate, step one of Luke’s plan is to get Ashley drunk. But this plan is seemingly interrupted by the presence of an armed gunman who has broken into the house. This terrifying turn of events brings Luke and Ashley together as they run through the house trying to hide from impending death. But it turns out this is all a setup perpetrated by Luke and Garrett, as well as Peckover and cowriter Zack Kahn.
The first act plays on Christmas horror tropes – and nods to Home Alone a lot – in setting up its disturbing twist on the false savior gag. Even at this point, Luke seems like a fairly normal, if misguided, child. But it’s easy enough to know someone without really knowing them, whether it’s your friend or your son. Because Luke has more planned. It’s not enough to try to get to Ashley, but he’s also planned to invite two of her ex-boyfriends over for horrific torture.
Peckover and Kahn’s script hinges on the point at which viewers fully understand the totality of what’s happening and the premeditated planning involved. We, and even Garrett, are taken aback at how elaborate a sick plan Luke has fashioned, fully believing that he will get away with it all. The sad thing is, his confidence is hardly hubris; it’s not unrealistic to expect that a young white boy would never be suspected. What is most telling is how Peckover sets up this scary night, illustrating the line between accepted, even encouraged and considered charming, misogyny and assault. Luke isn’t introduced as a monster; that would spoil everything. Instead, we are led to believe that he’s simply a sensitive tween who thinks his babysitter deserves better – and that better is him.
Even while Luke insists he isn’t a child, Peckover reminds us of his immaturity with scenes of Luke and Garrett playing Fuck, Marry, Kill over characters on the animated show “Adventure Time” and Truth or Dare, where Luke is dared to touch the tied up Ashley’s tits and gets a boner. Despite any arguments against it, Better Watch Out is little more than sadistic, misogynist torture porn. To couch such a violent film in Christmas coziness doesn’t come across as genre subversive but oblivious. The bloody tale isn’t entertaining in the slightest or surprisingly twisty in the manner of lauded horror flicks. To play coy with such a plot seems more than ignorant of the reality of its protagonist’s psyche. Unfortunately for Peckover and Kahn, there’s a vast disconnect between what is meant to be viewed as dark comedy and what is brutal premeditated murder, plain and simple.
Peckover should have expected his film to be divisive, especially since his finale remains ambiguous about his protagonist’s fate. It would be one thing if Peckover and Kahn had purposefully created a horror movie where the murder isn’t meant to be entertaining, but this dark tale is still meant to elicit laughs. Watching a horrifically brutal massacre play out without blatant punishment to cap it off may sound like no big deal in the writing room, but the experience of watching the movie renders that small decision out of touch, bordering on the irresponsible. It’s not enough to worry that any adult is capable of such masochism; it could be a child too.