Welcome to the 13th edition of Horror Down Under, a column series in which I review horror films from my home country of Australia. The purpose of this column will be that it will act as a showcase for various horror related film projects that have been made Australia in hopes that it will get you interested in checking them out for yourself. I’ll be reviewing a wide range of Aussie horror films of various quality from the excellent to the terrible, the all time classics to the latest releases to the completely forgotten, etc. For this 13th edition, I’ll be delving into the 2016 Christmas themed Australian/U.S. co-produced horror/comedy BETTER WATCH OUT…
DIRECTOR: Chris Peckover
SCRIPT: Zack Kahn and Chris Peckover (Story by Zack Kahn)
CAST: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic, Dacre Montgomery, Patrick Warburton, Virginia Madsen
PLOT: When you think the suburbs, you think safety, but this holiday night the suburbs are anything but safe. Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) thought this babysitting job was going to be an easy night, but the night takes a turn when dangerous intruders break in and terrorise her and the twelve-year-old boy, Luke (Levi Miller), she’s caring for. Ashley defends her charge to the best of her ability only to discover this is no normal home invasion.
Here’s a question: out of all the holidays that we have throughout the years, which one do you think is the most effective to set a horror film around? While a lot of people would definitely pick Halloween since it’s the most obvious choice, Christmas would also rank high up there for many others as well. It’s not hard to understand why when you think about it. Even though the Halloween season is synonymous with everything about horror, Christmas is the complete opposite of that in every way. It’s an innocent time of year that is about celebrating joy, hope, love, being merry, family, friends, coming together as one and giving goodwill to your fellow man. So, when a horror film comes along that takes place around a holiday that represents all those things, it makes for a far more unsettling experience. Classic horror films such as BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), CHRISTMAS EVIL, GREMLINS, INSIDE (2007), SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT and many others are still very much remembered today due their combination of yuletide cheer and chilling terror. In fact, some of the Christmas horror films I listed were so deeply unsettling, outraged viewers organised protests and accused the studios behind these films of being sacrilegious towards the holiday. Luckily, Australia has never had that problem due mainly to the fact that until recent years, Australian Christmas horror films never really existed.
Despite countries like the U.S. and U.K. releasing many Christmas themed films every year, Australia has barely produced any of its own. Which is pretty surprising and unusual given that Christmas is one of the most popular holidays in the country. If they do get made, they are few, and I mean *very* few, and far between. However, that all changed in 2017 when not one, not two but three Christmas films released throughout that year. What made it even more interesting, was the fact that all three were horror films. Now Australia producing a single Christmas film for one thing is very rare, but to release three of them in the span of one year and have them all be horror films as well? That’s kind of a Christmas miracle in and of itself. Plus, all three were completely different from each other in every way (two of which were the gory slasher film RED CHRISTMAS and the disturbing fact-based inspired serial killer film HOUNDS OF LOVE). However, there’s no question that the most well-known of the three is the dark horror/comedy BETTER WATCH OUT, which first came onto people’s radars when it premiered and gathered extremely positive buzz on the 2016 festival circuit under its original title of SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD, before being released the following year with its more appropriate current title. Now the funniest part is that most people probably don’t even realise it is in fact an Australian film. Or at least one that was co-produced with the U.S.A. When you watch the film, you can definitely see why it doesn’t give that impression at all.
Unlike the other two Aussie Christmas films, HOUNDS OF LOVE and RED CHRISTMAS, which had plots that take place in Australia, BETTER WATCH OUT’s story is set entirely in U.S.A. Plus, it was also written/directed/co-produced by Americans, unlike HOUNDS OF LOVE and RED CHRISTMAS, were made top-to-bottom by Aussie filmmakers. However, BETTER WATCH OUT does indeed have a lot of qualities that very much classify it as an Australian film. Even though it’s set in a house in a upper class American suburban neighbourhood, almost the entirely of BETTER WATCH OUT was shot on sound stages at Fox Studios in Sydney (the exception being the opening scene, which was the only section of the film to be shot in the U.S.). Also, other than both Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton, the cast comprises of Australians actors and many of the behind-the-scenes crew that worked on it (the cinematographer, editor, music composer, some of the producers etc.) were Aussies, as well. Sadly, despite having a very successful and critically acclaimed film festival run, BETTER WATCH OUT didn’t do that well box office-wise due its limited theatrical release back in 2017 (even though it had major commercial appeal, the film ended up only playing in a handful of cinemas here in Australia). With the help of DVD, BluRay and streaming services, BETTER WATCH OUT has found an audience and is slowly becoming a new modern Christmas horror classic as the years have gone by.
Like many horror fans, I first became aware of BETTER WATCH OUT when it made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest back in 2016. Based on the acclaim it had received from both critics and audiences after its first screening, I knew I had to check out this film. However, there were a couple of factors about the film that made me even more intrigued in it. The first one being that I didn’t realise that it was in fact an Australian co-production, which I found to be rather unexpected. The second one being that based on what I read from those who had seen it, BETTER WATCH OUT is one of those films which works even better if you go into it as blind as possible. After hearing that, I intentionally decided to do that myself in prep for watching it for the first time. I didn’t watch an trailers or read anything more about it. You know what? I’m glad I did. Even though BETTER WATCH OUT is just a few years old and there is probably quite a number of you out there who still haven’t seen it yet, I’m going to try to be as vague as possible in regards to spoilers from it. What I can say though, is that I really do love this film. BETTER WATCH OUT is a completely awesome little gem of a horror/comedy from start to finish. It pretty much delivered on everything that I really enjoy from a Christmas-themed horror films. It’s hugely entertaining, dark, funny, clever, subversive and aesthetically embraces everything that makes Christmas such a great holiday to set a horror film. I’ve seen the film quite a number of times over the pass few years, and it still holds up just as well on repeat viewings. This is one film that you can tell was a labour of love for everyone involved, both behind and in-front of the camera, as you are watching it.
I definitely have to give a lot of credit to co-writer/director Chris Peckover (who made this follow-up to his 2010 debut the little seen, but underrated found-footage horror film UNDOCUMENTED), who is without a doubt one of the main reasons why I believe BETTER WATCH OUT turned out as well as it did. An earlier version of the screenplay by co-writer Zack Kahn was originally going to be a torture porn style Christmas horror/comedy but once Peckover signed on to the film, he reworked the script with Kahn to tone down the torture porn aspect and take a meta approach to the material so that it felt more like a cross between SCREAM and HOME ALONE. Having those two mixed together seems like a weird pairing but when you watch the film, you can definitely see those influences sprinkled throughout it. Especially with HOME ALONE in which not only does it get referenced during this film, a certain key aspect from that film plays an important part for ghoulish effect in BETTER WATCH OUT’s story. The script overall is extremely well written in how it handles its humour, tone, horror, plot turns and characters. Peckover & Kahn wanted this to be more interesting than your standard entry home invasion sub-genre, which I really did appreciate overall. Plus, they even explore some fascinating themes that help make the film feel relevant to what is happening in society in recent years (I want to say what they are, but that’ll go into spoiler territory). When it comes to his direction, Peckover did a great job with how he crafted BETTER WATCH OUT. Everything from a filmmaking standpoint is top notch from top to bottom. Horror comedies can be very tricky to pull off, but in his hands, Peckover knows how to make the film’s mixture of hilarity, intensity and topical themes work tonally consistent with each other. On the technical side of things, the cinematography by Carl Robertson was lush and colourful, the production design was truly superb and Brian Cachia’s score captures the essence of Christmas perfectly.
When it comes to the film’s cast, Chris Peckover assembled a stellar line-up of Australia’s most talented young actors to play the main central leads. Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller and Ed Oxenbould are all terrific in their roles as “Ashley”, “Luke” and “Garrett”. The film gave them some really strong characters to work with and their chemistry with each other was great ( DeJonge and Oxenbould previously worked together as the leads in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2015 found-footage horror film THE VISIT, so that aspect was already there between them). Olivia DeJong brought both a likability and strength to her character of “Ashey”, which made her performance absolutely riveting to watch throughout the film. The character definitely cuts from the same cloth as other great horror heroines of the past, and DeJong handled the part like a pro. Levi Miller was definitely the stand out of the cast for me as “Luke”. For any young actor, the role of would be a big challenge to perform due to how completely complex “Luke” is. Miller was able to capture every aspect of the character brilliantly. It’s a truly fantastic performance that shows how talented of an actor Miller is. Ed Oxenbould was also very good as “Garrett”. Even though some will think his character isn’t an interesting as both “Ashley” and “Luke” are, Oxenbould still brought a lot of qualities to “Garrett” that still make him an compelling one nonetheless. Plus, he provides some of the film’s funniest moments as well. Among the supporting cast, everyone does a solid job in their roles. While I wish that they had more screen-time since their roles in the film felt more like extended cameos, Virginia Madsen & Patrick Warbuton were a lot of fun as the parents of “Luke’s” parents “Deandra & Robert Lerner” respectively. Also, I want to give a shout to both Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery (who would go on after this film to star in the film version of POWER RANGERS and the hit TV show STRANGER THINGS), who were both quite solid in their roles “Ricky” and “Jeremy” too.
Overall, while I wouldn’t put up there in the same league as the classics like BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), GREMLINS or SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, it doesn’t change the fact that BETTER WATCH OUT is still a damn good and engaging Christmas horror film in it’s own right. It’s one that knows how keep it’s audience glued from beginning to end with its dark comedy, twists-and-turns, entertaining thrills and topical subject matter. Sure, some purists who probably won’t consider it a true Australian film due to it being both co-produced with the U.S. and every aspect of it (characters, setting, story etc.) having an American point-of-view, it is still very much an Aussie production through-and-through as I’m concerned. If you’re a huge fan of Christmas horror films, I definitely recommended you to check this one out. It’s an underrated gem that deserves to have a bigger audience. If this film doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit as you are watching it, I don’t know what will. Also try to go into it as blind as possible if you can. Believe me, it makes the experience even better.
Note: BETTER WATCH OUT (2016) is currently available to purchase the BluRay via Amazon Australia here or Amazon U.S. here. Plus if you live in the U.S.A., you can also stream the film on both Tubi here or Shudder here.
Written by Bede Jermyn
You can check out all the previous editions of Horror Down Under here.
Bede is a film critic, writer, podcaster and the most terrible Australian you’ll ever meet. Why? Because he watches all the bad films that nobody else wants to watch. He loves all different types of cinema but he is a particular fan of horror, so-bad-they’re-good and Australian films.