Better Watch Out

As far as Christmas horrors go, Better Watch Out is one of the better ones, a compliment so back-handed it should be at Wimbledon.

It’s too bad too, because the definitive Christmas horror movie has yet to be made despite more and more of them coming out (let’s put it this way: the bloated Krampus doesn’t provide much holiday cheer, and if the admittedly stellar Christmas Evil or Black Christmas weren’t set on the big day, they’d probably be forgotten as quickly as the pair of socks or the dad tie).

Better Watch Out is a home invasion movie turned inside out, and features a much more interesting antagonist than we’re used to seeing around the holidays. So, considering the cheap holiday cash-ins that comprise the bulk of Christmas horror features, give some credit where it’s due: maybe in the form of a gift card.

Aussie Olivia DeJonge plays babysitter Ashley, entrusted to keep an eye out on Luke, the Lerner family boy (whose dad, Robert — Patrick Warburtin, Elaine’s vacant on-again-off again beau, Puddy on Seinfeld — makes no bones about leering at her). Luke is a sharp little hellion who knows how to push his babysitter’s buttons, guzzling a bottle of family champagne and snuggling close to her during frightening moments of a horror film.

Ashley is harassed by the usual workplace hazard of her profession: the menacing phone call (heavy breathing is a staple of Black Christmas as well). Then things take a wonderful turn.

Despite its R-rating, Better Watch Out offers very little in terms of gore. As a result, the critics slobbered all over it. The LA Times even pulled this out of its hat: “[Better Watch Out] says pertinent things about suburbia, holiday entertainment and toxic masculinity” [the latter phrase, meaningless bilge courtesy of the most laughable undergrad major there is, Gender Studies].” But the film says what, exactly? You can’t just let a phrase like that sit there, like a turd. Imagine a book report phrased thusly: “To Kill a Mockingbird says pertinent things about race.” “Moby-Dick says pertinent things about fate.” AND?

The performances are great all around, and things sag toward the climax with a particularly phony Foley artist workout involving a baseball bat.

Despite its delicious premise, Better Watch Out is a film that threatens to come alive every minute, but cannot…a kind of rolling boil of a horror. The places it should go, it doesn’t.

*** (out of 5)

Summer of 84

Over at Film School Rejects they asked if we are “approaching 1980s nostalgia fatigue.” We not only approached it, we settled in and signed the lease. Summer of 84 is another exercise in warm blanket era-sentimentality, a la Stranger Things, The Goldbergs and even before, on a popular Friends episode.

When it comes to our domain, horror, the 80s were something of a Golden Age so it’s not surprising filmmakers are longing for its return (Or maybe it’s all relative. The 90s ushered in a Dark Age.)

Summer of 84’s cultural touchstones include the usual suspects — Ghostbusters, MTV, and Reagan (what’s odd is that people are always time capsule-constrained to their decades. In the 80s, this site’s authors ingested a diet rich in 70s music and film, but if our lives ended up on screen, somehow it’d all be headbands, key-tars and Goonies).

Summer of 84 features four teen friends, roughly, the fatty, the nerd, the vaguely cool one, and the delinquent, and good-natured ribbing since lost to the Age of PC.

When their suburban town is rocked by a report of missing boys, a la the John Wayne Gacy case, one member of the crew casts suspicion on the local cop. The group then does some Hardy Boys inductive reasoning to dredge up clues to get their man. Their team also includes an eye-candy babysitter (too post-pubescent to run with this baby-faced crew, but providing good female energy) and their investigative reporting features nascent camcorder technology, and the even more inevitable Spielberg name-check.

With zippy dialogue and easy camaraderie, Summer of 84 whips along solely on its considerable charms, before completely unraveling in an exasperating anti-climax and embarrassingly stupid voice-over.

Merely snipping 10 minutes from the finale would’ve done this film wonders. But Summer of 84 is the work of three directors, so they were probably drawn and quartered in narrative direction.

Write (or direct) what you know is true for any era. And you could call the spate of 80s-styled horror movies by Generation Xers wistful thinking.

*** (out of 5)