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)

Santa Claus (1959)

At our latitude, Santa Claus comes with a set of built-in expectations: an unhealthy BMI, a felt suit, more hos than a red light district, and of course, the white beard.

1959’s Santa Claus, aka, Mexican Santa Claus, aka, Santa Claus vs. The Devil, upturns the sled, and gives us so many weird twists and turns that it makes for must-see Christmas viewing (especially if you’re tired of seeing James Caan glower at Will Ferrell on every fourth channel this time of year).

In this version, children, not elves, are the unlucky toilers in Santa’s employment standards-skirting workshop, and director Rene Cardona goes through great pains to show us that the kids are of every color and creed: there’s a protracted scene of ethnic stereotypes as American kids with cowboy hats, Germans in dirndls (say that three times fast) and Africans in grass skirts sing traditional, and decidedly un-traditional songs (the Brits sing a few bars of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” for reasons that defy logic and description).

And weirder still: Santa’s workshop isn’t on the North Pole, but is lunar. So it’s not a stretch to say this film is sheer lunacy.

He really knows when you’re sleeping/awake, as his base is equipped with espionage equipment that’d be the envy of the Stasi: telescopic eyes, satellite dish ears, etc. so he can peer down onto the earth’s surface and find out who’s been naughty/nice (depicted here, oddly, as “good” vs “liars).

Santa’s antagonist is “Pitch,” which sounds like some obnoxious a capella singer but who is in actuality a devilish emissary sent by Satan himself to spoil Christmas (“pitch” is a reference to a pitchfork). Pitch gets inside the heads of children to make them do bad things, like chuck projectiles at Kris Kringle or covet expensive dolls.

As weird and wonderful as Cardona’s infamous Night of the Bloody Apes (in which a bad scientist tries to treat leukemia, a bone marrow ailment, with an animal heart transplant) Santa Claus is a real break from your typical holiday fare, not to mention reality.

*** (out of 5)

[Listen to the Really Awful Movies Podcast team discuss Mexican Santa Claus!]