There’s a soft spot in my horror-loving heart for genre films that take place during the holidays, especially when they’re set in the cold wintry days of Christmas. Maybe it says something about myself, but it’s hard to resist a little terror during the holidays. Chris Peckover’s aptly titled Better Watch Out may not have any new ideas, but its compact narrative—one that twists and turns early and often—is a welcome addition to a long line of Yuletide horror films; plus, this one has a brilliantly bloody Home Alone gag, which has to count for something. In it, on a quiet suburban street, a babysitter must defend a twelve-year-old boy from intruders, only to discover it’s far from a normal home invasion.
Home invasion has been the go-to for indie horror over the last handful of years because it’s an easy genre to film—the locations are minimal, the budget is small, and you only need a handful of actors. And that’s exactly the formula for Peckover’s thriller, too, which feels a lot like what we’re used to—secluded, no way to call for help, and people are going to die (for sure) at the hands of a mad man. Only Peckover has a trick up his sleeve, revealing a pretty fun twist early on that adds an interesting wrinkle to a familiar story.
Obviously I won’t get into said twist here, but it works thanks to Peckover laying his cards on the table so soon. Usually we have to wait until the big reveal, but that isn’t the case with Better Watch Out. The reason is because its entire narrative hinges on that one twist, and it sets the rest of the story in motion; it’s here where the fun really begins as Ashley’s night of babysitting turns into a Christmas nightmare. And that, too, is one of the film’s stronger elements as Peckover wastes no time getting to the good stuff; you’ll never be bored by Better Watch Out, that’s for sure. The film moves at a reckless pace, throwing its characters into chaos almost immediately, only slowing down to set the stage for its next victim. It’s a solid enough formula that mostly works because the film never takes itself too seriously, and it’s much better because of it.
It really is a lot of fun, and you can tell that it was Peckover’s intention because so much of his film is fueled by its ridiculous sense of humor—just look no further than his perfectly executed (and brutal) homage to Home Alone. But where it couples that humor so well with horror, Better Watch Out desperately struggles to give its violence any real meaning. The motivation driving its characters is flimsy at best, dampening the impact of not only the story, but much of its violence; there’s just no weight behind the mayhem. It’s an unfortunate misstep because it made the film very difficult to buy into. It doesn’t ruin the movie by any means—the violence and humor are really fun—but it does hold it back quite a bit.
It’s the ugly sweater of Christmas horror movies—you can’t stop staring at it, which is all thanks to the Yuletide destruction. And you know what? That’s good enough for me. Peckover’s playful direction is totally on display, too, giving the film a fun holiday bite with one of the year’s very best murder scenes.