Better Watch Out (aka Safe Neighborhood)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/11/17 16:25:31

"Christmas Eve isn't the only trick this home invasion has up its sleeves."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT MONSTER FEST 2016: Talking about something being fun when it comes to horror movies probably strikes non-fans as bizarre even at first glance, with trying to do so in specific terms raising the ante to alarming, and trying to do so without spoiling the surprises marking the speaker as completely insane. So, pardon me if this review of "Safe Neighborhood" makes me sound nuts, because my feeling conflicted on it being fun or not extends right down to the premise at its very core.

It takes place shortly before Christmas, with Deandra (Virginia Madsen) and Robert Miller (Patrick Warburton) heading out for a friend’s Christmas party, leaving son Luke (Levi Miller) with Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). Given that Luke is 12, you’d think he’d bristle at this arrangement, but Ashley is super-cute and watches horror movies with him most nights, so he’s got a heck of a crush. Tonight, he tells his friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould), he aims to do something about it, but that’s before they start seeing signs that there’s someone trying to break into the house.

With the burglars spending much of the movie just out of sight and only Ashley’s boyfriend Jeremy (Dacre Montgomery) having much of an unmasked role beyond the people have been mentioned, this a movie where a strong cast is a must, and the mostly-young group tends to deliver. Olivia DeJonge captures that Ashley is pretty bright and self-aware while still coming off as fairly inexperienced; for instance, the scene where Ashley tells Luke that, yeah, she’s still with Jeremy despite his flaws plays as her obviously being more mature than Luke but still figuring that sort of thing out himself, not a wise or condescending adult. Levi Miller, meanwhile, plays Luke as having way too much confidence, clearly clever enough to outwit a set of home invaders but obviously messed up about what lines people will cross and how folks think generally. The secondary folks are fun too; Darce Montgomery and Ed Oxenbould play off DeJonge and Miller naturally, gaining both laughs and making enough of an impression that the audience will feel some loss if they’re knocked off on the way. Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen make little more than cameos as the parents, but their scenes sing.

Lots of pieces of the movie sing, in fact; director Chris Peckover and co-writer Zack Kahn have come up with a reasonably clever spin on a familiar genre with a decent emotional engine making it go, and that actually gets things started on the right foot twice, which is no mean feat. They hit a few very specific pop-culture references without seeming hacky or like they’ve got to reference beyond movies, and there are more than a few great moments in there: The early Madsen/Warburton bits, the spots in the middle where characters are much less comfortable with their presumed amorality than is often the case, some carefully constructed action built around twisted Christmas things, and a bit toward the end that counters a lot that had just been draining. Given that this movie does not waste a lot of its 85 minutes, that should be enough.

But this is where the question of “fun” comes in, and there are large chunks of this movie that are just plain mean without being particularly entertaining or surprising, numbing the audience to the point where the cruelty seems more inevitable than shocking. There are times when this works, in more thematically ambitious movies whose creators want the audience to think about something more weighty than how cleverly they’ve twisted a traditional siege movie. This film doesn’t quite have the confident irony to hold itself up as its own target, and without that, the escalating viciousness can become pointless.

It doesn’t totally fall into that trap - there are good bits and clever ideas enough that much of the movie can be described as the sort of twisted fun that non-horror fans just don’t get. Indeed, for a lot of fans looking for a new twist on old favorites, this will work very well, certainly well enough that it won’t feel like that neat idea got wasted.

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