Better Watch Out & Red Christmas: Holiday Horror Special 2017

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Better Watch Out

Directed by Chris Peckover

“Better Watch Out” is a holiday horror classic with year round potential but best enjoyed in season; it’s a bountiful present that harbors humor, yuletide terror and unyielding new twists on both the home invasion and coming of age subgenres with a spark all its own.

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The premise is simple; young boy on the cusp on his teenage years longs for his young, attractive babysitter and attempts to woo her while his mother and father are out on the town for the holidays but such efforts are interrupted by unwelcome visitors…or is there something more sinister afoot?

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The primary trio of cast members are all superb with male lead Luke (Levi Miller) absolutely owning his role while his sitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) shines in her performance and the interplay between the two is absolutely electric. There’s also a fun set of bookends from scene veterans Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton as Luke’s parents, while his onscreen sidekick Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) is a meld of Milhouse Van Houten and Bart Simpson, juvenile menace with a moral compass buried deep.

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“Home Alone” is referenced frequently and directly in a form that is both fresh and familiar, meta in a “Scream” sort of way but much more disturbing and fun.  Speaking of which “Funny Games” is also a clear influence on this film, both the original and American remake; other home invasion favorites could be cited as well but the mean spirit of that particular feature stands out.  Without giving away the primary spoiler of this film, it is undeniable that “The Bad Seed” or maybe better put, “The Good Son” is the strongest cinematic birthright of “Better Watch Out.”

The kills are inventive, vicious and filled with a gleeful zeal that is both unnerving and hilarious and through the bulk of its runtime allow “Better Watch Out” to be equal parts funny and frightening. An array of traditional methods are utilized but with such a criminal genius and layered depth that they are elevated far beyond their primitive base.

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The filmmakers work hard to provide ample reasoning as to why the suspension of disbelief isn’t necessary with very detail oriented processes that may still make some in the audience roll their eyes at a few of the more over the top bits and genuinely consider how much one could get away with given the proper plan and implements.  It’s this aspect that I probably enjoyed the most and resonated with me long after the credits rolled; some may consider it overindulgence but my studies of true crime have illuminated the fact that humanity is the devil and looks can, and usually are quite deceiving.

Along with the Netflix exclusive “The Babysitter,” child care has been a hot career in horror this year and both that entry and this release approach the profession very differently but both are done beautifully. It’s always difficult in the fine art of cinematic alchemy to combine horror and humor yet both are blended into powerful potions here, sure to satisfy like a well “spiced” eggnog or that sweet ho-ho-holiday homicide we wait for all year…

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Red Christmas

Directed by Craig Anderson

“Red Christmas” is a hi-def holiday horror film but in its heart of hearts, it’s undoubtedly an 80s slasher throwback where the season as the reason is fairly superfluous but the flimsy plot, accelerated action that seems remarkably slow (strange in a scant 81 minute running time) and glorious gore are pure Regan-era stock while there’s a heaping helping of longstanding social issues with a modern spin to stir the pot some.

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Dee Wallace (my main MILF crush for life) plays the loving but conflicted matriarch of a strained family celebrating Christmas in an isolated, rural part of Australia (“Better Watch Out” was also filmed in Oz  and both in 2016, making their stateside debut the following year.) There are the usual squabbles but the peace is kept with unease until Cletus arrives. This long lost son has come home for the holidays but with his disfigured visage hidden beneath his cloak and his unnerving voice and message see him driven out of the home and into a boiling rage that will win his mother’s love…or none shall be embraced by it ever again.

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Gorehounds will salivate at the geysers of blood and gruesome butchery that in the second half of the feature is near constant, especially with such a small cast and ergo, a limited body count.  There’s some pedestrian, to the point efforts with the first on screen killings but the creativity is ramped up quickly. I won’t divulge too many details but man, this one has the best use of a leg-hold trap I’ve seen in years. Ah, fuck it. See exhibit A below:

The antagonist stays enshrouded for the bulk of the film amidst his soiled robes and bandages but there is a classic reveal and even though anticipated, it hits up there with heavies. Even I have to admit, it got me good though that’s probably due to it being revealed with a mournful monologue that elicits sympathy Cletus once deserved but has evaporated with his actions. Forgiveness is the overarching theme here and despite Wallace’s masterful performance, there’s just not enough to properly flesh it out the way it deserves to be.

No spoilers here as it’s included on the back cover synopsis but the central controversial element in “Red Christmas” is abortion. There is no major message or any sermonizing; sides aren’t taken here.  As the film unfolds, the audience is given the opportunity to understand the difficult issues and that neither argument is perfect or infallible.

On a side note, I want to applaud Gerard O’Dwyer’s performance in this film, not because he is an actor with Down syndrome (though for every echo chamber in Hollywood who espouse diversity, well here’s the real deal you shrill shitheads) but because he gives a first rate turn here; funny, sweet, Shakespearean and in the end, profound.  Culled with all the primary subject matter and there’s an even greater impact.

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While “Red Christmas” isn’t the seasonal sledgehammer I’d hoped for or as strong as “Better Watch Out”, it’s a noble effort that isn’t paint by numbers, elevated by the turns from Wallace and O’Dwyer.  Given some more padding and bigger budget, this one would have scaled much farther up the tree; not quite the angelic beacon of classics like “Black Christmas”, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” or “Christmas Evil” it’s an ornament worthy of admiration.