2018 is officially the year of calling privileged, usually white men out on their shit. As actors drop thousands of dollars on black clothes as a sign of solidarity (instead of, you know, donating that money to actual victims of sexual assault) and guys try to sue companies for not letting them make horribly sexist comments, it's becoming apparent that now, more than ever we need media that tells it like it is—accurately, in a way the Horrible Orange Cheeto could never hope to accomplish. In the era of supposedly "fake news" that tricks people into talking about whether we should be talking at all, rather than focusing on the actual issues at hand, we need books, TV shows, movies, comics, podcasts, and games that are overtly critical about the world around us, fiction that refuses to pull any punches.
And thank you god, we're getting it.
The very end of 2017 gave us Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a film that makes it plain as day that the true threat to the galaxy is not an all-powerful, alien being, but rather a whiny, white man-child whose egotism is enough to fill up a Death Star. Just two weeks later Black Mirror season 4 dropped, gracing us with "U.S.S. Callister," a short story invested in taking back The Original Series Star Trek; what the show actually was—a push for feminism, multiculturalism, and true unity—not the 'burr hurr Kirk is a total player in his space man cave' idea that's taken hold in recent years. In true, 21st century fashion we're given another white, handsome captain... but this guy is a Nice Guy™ and is, accordingly, dangerous.
We've been given Get Out, The Handmaid's Tale, Call Me By Your Name, Stranger Things, Wonder Woman, Star Trek: Discovery, Thor: Ragnarok, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, It, Coco and numerous other works that push a so-called "political agenda," AKA basic human rights for certain minority groups. And though this is a lot, there's still one other text that I'd like to add to the growing list; one story that we should be talking about alongside these others: Chris Peckover's Better Watch Out.
I wouldn't be surprised if this film slipped under your radar. Released around Halloween of last year—though set during Christmas—that holiday clash might have turned off a number of viewers. Mediocre reviews, not much promotion... and it looks, as one critic put it, like "just another depressing, nihilistic horror flick." But that's largely the point.
You see, in every way Better Watch Out was designed to look like your average, spooky blood-fest. The premise is easily translated into any number of films: Luke Lerner is a bright twelve-year-old with a crush on his hot babysitter, seventeen-year-old Ashley. When Luke's parents take the night off to attend a holiday party and Ashley agrees to watch the house, Luke—along with his best friend Garret—decide that now is the time for him to make his move. He might be young, but he just knows there's a connection between them and Luke will do whatever it takes to make Ashley see that they’re meant for each other.
Now normally this is the sort of story premise that I'd criticize, a plot dependent on the assumption that all young men lust after their hot babysitters (even when they're still just kids). Involving a minor? Age gap? Power difference? Sexuality? None of that matters when there's a Hot Girl and your male protagonist is thrown into a scenario where he gets the chance to protect her. However, like many other shows and films nowadays (Stranger Things and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend come to mind), Better Watch Out is deliberately setting up horrible tropes in order to dismantle them. This film is doing something far more complex than just giving us another cliched 'boy likes girl who doesn't like him back' scenario----so let's break this down just a bit. But first, I encourage you to watch the trailer:
If you haven't seen the film you'd be forgiven for buying into that reviewer's statement that this is just another generic thriller. That's what you're meant to think in the first half of the trailer. This is a story about a boy lusting after a girl, who notably he "doesn't stand a chance" with, and then no doubt gaining some of her respect as they survive a home invasion together, even if he doesn't gain her love. We've seen it all before. The twist comes in the trailer's second half, wherein we transition to morbid comedy and it's revealed that for once the victims fight back. Luke won't earn Ashley's respect just by surviving, but by gaining the upper-hand. It still reeked of 'boy protects woman even though boy is the child and woman is the adult in charge' syndrome, but it was enough of a twist in genre that I was convinced to see it.
And boy, was I fooled.
This trailer is a masterclass in selective editing because there's another twist halfway through the film. We learn that there was never any real home invasion; Luke just made it up with the hopes of impressing Ashley. More importantly her boyfriend isn't tied up in the preview because he's a threat to the poor girl-----he's tied up because he tried to protect Ashley from Luke.
I honestly can't express how shocked I was by the reveal that Luke is the true antagonist, simply because I never expected that a 'generic thriller' would go there. When Ashely figures out his fake home invasion and thoroughly rejects him, Luke lashes out by hitting her hard enough to knock her down the stairs. Ashely wakes up to find herself bound to a chair, Luke with a gun in his hands, threatening to kill her if she doesn't agree to be his girlfriend. From then on the rest of the film covers Ashely's physical and emotional torture at the hands of her charge. When her first ex arrives looking for her, Luke "Home Alone's" him with the paint can... killing him instantly and cheering about how he just knew a force like that would shatter someone's skull. Luke lures Ashley's second ex to the house, tricks him into forging a suicide note, and hangs him just for kicks----and to eliminate the competition, of course. He makes sexual advances towards Ashley while she's tied up and helpless. He pretends to see the error of his ways just to laugh about it later. That moment at the trailer's end where Luke blasts someone with a shotgun? It's not him protecting Ashely from some evil robbers, it's Luke killing his best friend because he's become too much of a liability.
In every way, shape, and form Luke embodies what it means to be the dangerous Nice Guy™, and the film capitalizes on this, making him the overt villain whereas most other films----horror or otherwise----just leave the audience with a "subtext" that's only obvious to women who have lived through this. Better Watch Out isn't that film. And more than just speaking plainly about the dangers of rich, egotistical white men who have never learned the word 'no,' Better Watch Out adds a fascinating layer by grappling with Luke's age. Throughout the entirely of the film Luke uses his status as a minor and his cute, boyish looks to throw off suspicion, right up until the end where he tearfully asks his mom to visit Ashely in the hospital, to make sure she's okay after the long ordeal that he had nothing to do with... it's chilling in a way that the 'evil child' trope normally isn't for me. Because we can easily see how the rest of this story will play out off screen: Ashely will tell the authorities exactly what happened and no one will believe her. Luke? But he's just a kid! He's so polite and intelligent, he has his whole life ahead of him...
Sound like any other arguments we've heard in the news lately?
I watched Better Watch Out's trailer expecting a generic home invasion flick, started the film expecting the same with a healthy dose of comedy, and instead ended up with a hard-hitting look at how easy it is for a rich white boy to get away with absolutely anything. A lot of people are going to watch this film in the future and think, "Oh, just another stereotyped psychopath," but I think a lot of women are going to see it and feel a real shiver of familiarity----no matter how exaggerated the violence might be.
The holidays have long passed, but give Better Watch Out a chance anyway. It has a lot more to say than you might expect.