Each year I try to watch one new Christmas horror movie. Without a wide release, catchy controversy, or iconic Garbage Day clip Better Watch Out may easily fall under most people’s radars. But what this movie lacks in buzz it makes up for in some neat twists and refreshingly anti-patriarchal themes and messaging. Although this critique of the patriarchy is so subtle it appears many reviewers think this movie reinforces misogyny. It’s a shame because this movie more so than Ruin Me and other horror films touted as feminist seems to so clearly call out toxic masculinity and patriarchy.
Seventeen-year-old Ashley is on her way to babysit Luke. Luke is twelve and Ashley has been babysitting him for years. This will be her last time doing so, and Luke has plans to “seduce” her. His friend Garrett is dismissive of this plan but wishes his friend the best anyway.
When Ashley arrives she keeps taking phone calls from her boyfriend Ricky who is obviously frustrated because of her impending move and keeps asking to come over. Meanwhile Luke pops open a champagne bottle and encourages Ashley to drink with him, bragging about his alcohol tolerance and telling her she dates terrible guys and could do better. He also makes an awkward pass at her before she rejects him and they are disrupted by a sound.
Ashley is led to believe they are in the middle of a home invasion before figuring out it’s Garrett and Luke trying to scare her into sleeping with Luke. Disgusted with them both and threatening to reprimand them, she turns to go downstairs and Luke slaps her, knocking her down the stairs and out cold.
When she awakens she is bound and duck taped. It’s clear this has been Luke’s plan all along. His demeanor is noticeably crueler and devoid of any semblance of innocent frustration he has previously displayed the whole film. He has also invited Ashley’s boyfriend Ricky – ready to make them both look guilty of getting drunk and high while babysitting him. After restraining Ricky we see Ashley is managing to use some broken glass to try and free her limbs.
She doesn’t make it out at this point, and almost everyone dies before the conclusion of the film. At the conclusion it looks like Luke has succeeded in killing Ashley, Ricky, Jeremy (Ashley’s ex boyfriend), and Garrett all the while looking innocent of any wrongdoing. Until the reveal that Ashley is actually alive having duck taped her seemingly fatal stab wound.
This is a film that relies on misogynistic visuals to work against misogynistic views – an ironic strategy that many horror films try but most can’t fully pull off. I’m not sure this one does either but it’s at least clear in creating sympathy for Ashley and disdain for Luke.
Luke’s interest in Ashley is never not icky. Realistically this makes sense as twelve-year-olds are full of hormones and lack the same understanding of boundaries an adult would (or at least should) have. It seems like we should be rooting for Luke if this was a different type of movie but his lack of boundaries and desperation are cringeworthy. I was uncomfortable that the film would even suggest something romantic happening between Ashley and Luke. At one point Ashley does tell Luke she would date him if she was her age but it seems like she is just trying to placate him. She also takes a sip of champagne and lets him continue drinking it after almost pouring it all out. It’s refreshing that we repeatedly see Ashley act like a teenage girl without the nasty implication that she deserves to be punished for her behavior like some horror films.
When we get the first glimpse at the real Luke it’s almost a relief his gross behavior is not meant to elicit sympathy or even laughs. Instead we can tell he’s a sociopath pampered by layers of privilege (white, male, clearly well off given he’s an only child living with his parents in a huge house). Direct references to Home Alone paint him (pun intended) as an evil Kevin McAllister. Each person he kills adds another layer of frustration and hope he will get caught. But his staging of the murder scene at the end of the film and near miss of getting back into his room with the pencil on his doorknob don’t feel like watching Norman Bates nervously watch Marion Crane’s car sink. Instead it feels like “is this little shit really going to get away with such an outlandish lie?” So when Ashley is seen alive at the end the relief is immense. She is truly the final girl. Not thanks to her virginity which is referenced earlier in the film but instead her ability to intellectually and emotionally outwit Luke. When we first meet Ashley we see her nearly hit a black cat in her car while distracted by a phone call to hint at her obliviousness. But as the film progresses it’s clear Ashley is far more observant and resourceful than we are initially meant to give her credit for. But like a true final girl her strengths only truly reveal themselves when she’s pushed to survive a terrible situation.
The movie doesn’t have many characters but it’s peppered with moments of flirty ambiguity from men directed at Ashley. Robert’s (Luke’s father) commentary on how beautiful she is to how “she didn’t ask his permission” to move away to college. His delivery of the line is creepy and goes a beat too long before he makes it seem like a joke. Likewise, the pizza delivery guy’s “you have a pleasant night” has just a hint of something that makes it hard to discern whether its merely customer service or flirtation. Even Garrett, who mostly functions as an example of a lackey who lacks the moral conviction to stand up to his friend, kisses a captive Ashley on the cheek and stares at her tenderly while trying to free her. In that moment Garrett is positioned as “the nice guy” who finally wants to help Ashley out of her predicament.
The one big exception to this pattern is Ashley’s boyfriend Ricky. While alone and tied up with Ashley he tells her to just run if she frees herself. He also states that he is happy for her impending move because it’s an exciting new chapter in her life and that she’s going to be awesome. It’s also revealed that he didn’t just ignore Ashley’s boundaries and come over – Luke pretended to be Ashley and texted him to come over. The only person’s boundaries he does violate is Luke by storming in, taking a slice of pizza, and demanding to see Ashley since he believes she wants to see him. He is not dissuaded by Luke and Garrett’s insinuations she is on her period and has diarrhea which would sadly be enough to scare most grown men away.
The moment Luke kills Ricky is the most obvious confirmation we are meant to be rooting for Ashley and against Luke. When Ricky’s head is smashed we see Garrett and Ashley’s horrified faces before anything else, encouraging the viewer to share in their visceral horror and shock and mimic their emotions by instinct.
The other male character in the film is Ashley’s ex-boyfriend Jeremy. Jeremy, like Ashley, seems to be guilty only of acting like a teenager. Spreading a rumor that Ashley slept with him is disgusting but he does seem apologetic when he’s pushed to show genuine emotion by Luke. His death isn’t afforded the same weight that Ricky’s is, but the down tempo “Carol of the Bells” with a lingering shot of his open, unseeing eyes does illicit sympathy for Jeremy. His death feels the most utterly unnecessary.
Jeremy’s death is directly before Luke sees Garrett kiss Ashley and kills him in a moment of rage, shouting “look what you made me do” in a way that would even creep a vindictive Taylor Swift out. Even Garrett’s death, which could have felt vindicating given how many chances he had to stop Luke, is sad as he pleads for help and then his mom before being shot by Luke.
Luke and Ashley’s final conversation in the movie finds her refusing to play along with him anymore and taking on an almost peaceful protest by refusing to speak to or look at him until he stabs her in frustration. His reveal that all he desires is for his mom to hold him again makes it clear his conquest of Ashley was never even sexual as he first implied. But his frustration at her refusing to cater to him still rings true of the way rapists seek power and not gratification through their actions. He doesn’t look satisfied when killing Ashley or even when getting held by his mom. The only time he seems satisfied is when he’s getting the undivided attention he desires. This is the motivating current through which all his actions operate, and can be seen most clearly at the one death that does bring him glee: Ricky’s. And even then his glee is only because he is feeding off Ashley and Garrett’s frozen, undivided focus on what he’s done. Look what you made me do indeed.
– I have to wonder if Deandra (Luke’s mom) has an inkling as to Luke’s true nature. Twelve-year-olds, as Dawn said on Buffy, “are old enough to be babysitters” – especially a twelve-year-old as precocious and in as safe as a neighborhood as Luke appears to be. The mom informs Ashley that the pencil balanced on the outside of his room on his doorknob is to help track his sleepwalking but I can’t help but wonder if it is also a subtle alarm system especially given his mother issues.
-Garrett comments to Ashley that though her situation isn’t fair “neither is political corruption in West Africa” hits the same note as people insinuating that any desire to advance women’s rights in the United States is ridiculous because after all ‘aren’t women in Saudi Arabia the ones with the real problems?’ The writing in this movie is very clever and makes it well worth a second view.
-The movie is a little too dark, realistic, and nihilistic for me to become a standard Christmas film (unlike 2006′s Black Christmas which is dark but utter unrealistic and sickeningly entertaining), but it’s well worth a watch and really felt Christmas-y. It borders more on a suspense film with lots of violence than horror but still satisfies a Christmas horror craving.