This post contains spoilers
Despite being filmed in Australia, Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out (2016) is a film that very much feels like it belongs in Trump’s America. From the way wealth and privilege are leveraged to create a veneer of normalcy to the intersection of male privilege and childhood, this film’s messaging is situated directly in those conversations being held in the American cultural sphere.
The film’s storyline is a relatively simple one. Having arrived at the Lerner residence to babysit 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller), Ashley’s (Olivia DeJonge) expected quiet evening takes a dramatic turn when she is forced to guard her charge and his best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), against a home intruder. But things quickly take a turn when Ashley discovers that her biggest threat comes from the person she’d least suspect.
As reviewers have noted, Better Watch Out is a glorious hodgepodge of dark humor and unflinching brutality. Clearly inspired by films such as Home Alone (1990)—one of the bloodiest scenes is a direct homage—and Funny Games (2007), Better Watch Out flips the script on audience expectation by using what we know about home invasion films against us. Chase scenes and the intrepid creativity of the core characters take on a decidedly different flavor when it becomes clear that the source of the terror isn’t an intruder to the family home but a resident.
From the outset, it’s clear that the Lerner family is a privileged one. Lingering shots of the family home convey an upper middle class suburban existence as does the costuming of the immediate family. Luke’s pressed pants and jovial holiday sweater stand in direct contrast to his friend Garrett’s jeans and hoodie and visually convey their have/have not dichotomy. Establishing this distinction is essential to the film’s success because it predisposes the audience to see the Lerner family as the quintessential representation of polite society. On the surface, there is absolutely nothing threatening about this family, which makes the events to come all the more unexpected.
The film, particularly in the first 20 minutes, does an extremely effective job of weaving in moments that feel wrong but also don’t raise any immediate suspicions. The audience’s first clue that something is off with the Lerner family comes when Ashley is greeted by parents, Robert (Patrick Warburton) and Deandra (Virginia Madsen). Robert’s ogling of 17-year-old Ashley in front of his wife comes across as creepy and yet familiar. We live in a culture where incidents of harassment are dismissed as “locker room” behavior and where men who sexually pursue teenagers can come within spitting distance of being elected to Congress. So while Robert’s behavior definitely creates an uncomfortable atmosphere, it doesn’t necessarily instill fear within the minds of the audience because we’ve been predisposed to look the other way.
Whether or not you see the twist that Luke is a homicidal psychopath cloaked in an apple-cheeked American veneer likely depends on how many horror flicks you’ve seen. I find it difficult to believe that horror fans won’t see the twist coming, especially after the scene with the cell phone in the fish tank. Interestingly though, figuring things out before the reveal doesn’t do much to negatively impact the film’s suspense building and that is owed almost entirely to how the film leverages the youngest member of the Lerner family.
Luke is a child of privilege whose tailored button down and sweater set suggests less an old soul and more a pretentious take on date wear. He’s clearly playing a part of his own manufacturing and woe be unto the person who doesn’t adhere to the part he/she has been reluctantly assigned. Luke is also a clever addition to the horrific child trope.
Unlike past killer kids who were either excused of their crimes because they were possessed (Regan in The Exorcist) or because they were victims themselves (Ellen, Tommy and Paul in The Children), Luke is notable because he is so very ordinary. Unlike the titular character in Joshua (2007), who is specifically set apart from the norm both in style of dress (straight up business suits) and tastes (classical music), Luke never seems out of lockstep with those around him. Sure, he’s pretentious as hell, but his banter with Garrett shows Luke more than capable of interacting with his peers.
If there is one film character whom Luke echoes, it’s Henry from The Good Son (1993). Like Henry, Luke is coldly calculating and is very capable of telling right from wrong. He also shares Henry’s mommy issues. But that’s where the comparison ends. By virtue of his age, Luke is also contending with his emerging sexuality. His life of privilege has predisposed him to a certain set of expectations, one of which is that if he wants something, he deserves to have it. In this #MeToo era, Luke’s sense of entitlement with regard to Ashley sends the clear message that it’s not only men who are a threat, but the boys who will become men.
Another point of departure between Luke and Henry is that the adults surrounding Henry held him accountable for his actions. Conversely, Luke is enabled by his parents at every turn. While Robert appears largely tuned out to his son, the film suggests that Deandra knows something is off, but she chooses to protect him and the family’s veneer of respectability by doing nothing. As it often seems in real life, the privileged play by a different set of rules in this film.
Children in horror films traditionally represent very specific notions of evil that capitalize on the sense of dread culturally associated with the next generation. But with Luke, Better Watch Out suggests that it’s not the next generation that is dangerous, but the present generation: They have been taught that privilege and social standing means no longer having to play by the rules.