Peckover: Better Watch Out (2017)
Along with Happy Death Day and Halloween, Better Watch Out is one of the most original post-slasher films of the last couple of years. Like those films, too, Better Watch Out builds an original and unsettling tone through a series of quite discrete sections, the first of which opens in a sparkling American suburb on Christmas Eve. In what often feels like a parody Hallmark movie, we’re introduced to Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), a babysitter who is on her way to look after Luke (Levi Miller), a high school student, while his parents Robert (Patrick Warburton) and Deandra (Virginia Madsen) have a night out with some friends. Since Ashley is on the verge of moving states, she’s decided to ask her boyfriend Ricky (Aleks Mikic) over to talk through their relationship – a prospect that Luke and his best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) view with dismay, since this is Luke’s chance to make a move on Ashley, who he’s pined after for some time now. The fact that Ashley has dated a string of jocks, including alpha male Jeremy (Dacre Montgomery) would seem to make Luke’s chance’s pretty slim even without the age difference, but he’s determined to romance her in any way he can, and sets out to impress her with champagne, scary movies and his idea of suavity.
From the outset, then, there are some fairly unsavoury elements to this evening, but director Chris Peckover and writer Zack Kahn subsume them into the perky, upbeat, Christmas atmosphere of the house, which feels straight out of a Hallmark Christmas Special. While there are escalating disruptions of this space – a cork popping, a loose spider, a figure at the window – they’re always absorbed back into the feel-good atmosphere, just as Hallmark, and Christmas itself, seem uncannily capable of containing any trauma, no matter how dramatic or abrasive. The score, in particular, offsets any horror with a note of perpetual resolution, as every conflict seems to end before it has begun, and the night is always on the verge of settling back into normality for good. Within that environment, Luke’s efforts to romance Ashley mainly come off as sweet, and make him seem vulnerable more than anything else, leading Ashley to go easy on him when he drinks half a bottle of wine, and to even give him some sage advice about dating to help him with future romance.
Beyond a certain point, however, the odd details of the night start to add up, as a series of slasher tropes come into play – anonymous phones calls, a brick thrown through the window, cut phone lines and disconnected internet, a figure looming at the front door, and finally a full-blown home invader, who chases Ashley and Levi upstairs, and forces them to hide in the closet. Two or three times, this amorphous threat turns out to be Garrett, acting on Luke’s behest, trying to scare Ashley so that Luke can step in, save the day, and win her love. But the slasher seems to continually exceed Garrett’s agency, until Garrett himself appears to be the victim of the slasher, leaving only Ashley and Luke behind. Even at this point, however, the slasher tropes feel just a bit too stylised, a bit too indebted to slasher movies, from the shots of the swing outside that directly quote the opening of Scream, to the numerous references to the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises. While this second act is extremely suspenseful, its suspense therefore seems off somehow, as if it the entire slasher scenario is being managed by something even more other than the slasher himself.
It feels both appropriate and surprising, then, when it turns out that Luke is in fact responsible for the entire plan, and has devised an even more devious evening than even Garrett anticipated. Striking Ashley and then tying her up, Luke taunts her for her lack of interest in him, before using her phone to call Ricky and then Jeremy to entice them to the house. At the beginning of the film, Luke seems like the vulnerable character, the one who has to be protected – from his own premature desires as much as anything else – but it now emerges that he has been in control of the situation all along, thanks to a slasher lexicon that now empowers him to unleash a perverse ludic energy across the house and the film.
This change in character is the twist of the film, and yet it never feels like a transformation so much as a revelation – a revelation that beneath Luke’s artless innocence was a psychopath all along. This discovery never stops being shocking or surprising over the course of the film, largely because of the way in which it inverts the logic of suburban horror, and of the slasher film in particular. In traditional slasher films, the slasher intensifies white patriarchal authority, plugging a gap in an emasculated suburban environment. Yet in order to do so, the slasher has to also take white patriarchal authority to a monstrous extreme, destroying the very figures of innocence that this authority is supposed to protect. All that keeps the slasher film tenable, then, are these figures of innocence, and yet in Better Watch Out, it is the most innocent character who actually mediates the slasher’s agenda. Rather than the slasher, it is now the white boy who mediates suburban patriarchy, just as it is the figure who is keenest to arrogate victimhood and vulnerability to himself who inherits the power of the slasher. In many ways, the lugubrious backstories attached to later incarnations of Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees were an attempt to come to terms with this new wave of white male self-regard, but that arrogation of pathos is taken to a new extreme in Luke, who can only continue his spree by framing himself as its main victim.
In that sense, the sustained third act of Better Watch Out plays a bit like an incel hostage film, as Luke punishes Ashley for what she has made him do before he even does it, establishing a kind of twisted pathos in which he is the victim of his own desire for her, and so needs to punish her for his own victimhood even as his punishment enhances his sense of victimhood as well. The result plays a bit like a parody of the recurring Hallmark narrative in which white women learn to accept a benign version of patriarchy, and so recognise that there can be a benign version of patriarchy. Usually, that recognition is brokered by way of a child, but in Better Watch Out the monstrous agency of the slasher has already been subsumed into the monstrous agency of the young white man, meaning that there is no point of reference for attaching to or even discerning this innocent iteration of patriarchy.
For part of what makes the third act of Better Watch Out so unsettling is that the Hallmark aesthetic more or less persists, with Luke playing one Christmas carol after another as he embarks upon a spree of physiological and physical torture. In another kind of film, this Christmas score might suggest ironic detachment, or apathetic nihilism, but here it instead speaks to Luke’s normative power as a young white man, his assurance that he is the last possible person whose normality and actions are likely to be questioned. Of course, the film presents him as somewhat pathetic, with his voice perpetually breaking at moments of crisis, and his aping of adulthood falling painfully flat, along with his attempts to woo Ashley by acting like the man of the house. Yet that adolescent insecurity simply clarifies a deeper and more disturbing swagger – the swagger of a figure with supreme normalcy on their side – that cuts through every tetchy, paranoid, anxious or bumbling moment on Luke’s part, to express his deep and accurate conviction that a certain substrate of legitimacy will continue to cling to him, despite every mistake, due to his status, subject position and background.
In this version of the slasher film, then, the slasher doesn’t need to invade the house, since the slasher is the house. More pertinently, perhaps, the slasher doesn’t need to find a victim, since the slasher already is the victim – or, rather, the slasher is the person who has the privilege to arrogate victimhood to himself. That might sound like a small distinction, but it has big ramifications for how Luke treats Ashley over the course of this third act. Where slashers tended to revel in the fact of their victims, or at least needed victims, Luke’s main agenda is to refrain from anything that might allow Ashley to think of herself as a victim, instead using the hostage situation as a way of forcing her to testify to his victimhood. Ironically, that makes her much easier to kill than a regular victim, and makes the kill itself much less elaborate, since after realising that Ashley won’t testify in the way he requires – her last gesture is to simply shut her eyes and ignore his pleas for pathos – her function is exhausted, making it a fairly banal gesture for him to simply stab her in the neck.
At these moments, it feels as if Luke not only resembles a certain evolution of white masculinity, but an evolution of the slasher audience itself. If earlier generations of slasher fans were terrified, and later generations were ironically terrified, then the most recent generation of slasher fans have often experienced the slasher as a figure distinct from any one film or medium, and instead distributed as a kind of white potentiality across memes, YouTube and other digital forums. From a figure of sublime austerity, the slasher has become a function that can be repurposed at will, a process that forms a large part of Luke’s project here, which liberally quotes from the slasher canon, but rarely with a sense of allegiance to any single film or figure. This promiscuous citation also allows the slasher function to be retrojected into other films that have been similarly repurposed, with Home Alone and Home Alone 2, in particular, becoming the focal point at which all of Luke’s slasher citation tends to converge, especially in the film’s most brutal and violence scenes.
One of the most compelling fan theories about Home Alone is that Kevin McAllister actually grows up to be Jigsaw, the sadistic psychopath of the Saw franchise. Something of that logic pervades Better Watch Out too, with Luke invoking the Home Alone films more self-consciously than any other films. In fact, these are the only two films that really ramify here as films, rather than free-floating filmic fragments, as if all the violence of the slasher canon had been condensed into Kevin’s hijinks in Winnetka and New York. In some ways, Home Alone is the main point of focus, not only because this is Luke’s own home, but because he relives many of Kevin’s moments from the first film, from putting aftershave on his face to swinging a bucket down the landing. In this case, however, the consequences of Kevin’s actions are much more visceral, with this bucket of paint striking Ricky square in the skull, resulting in a revolting mixture of yellow paint and red blood that pools on the floor as the third act proceeds. There’s no better way to offset the fakeness of blood than by mixing it with real paint, and it is the artificiality of the blood that is as revolting as anything here, testament to Luke’s ability to blend citation and reality in the most visceral manner possible.
Yet while the plot of the film might recall Home Alone, the logic of the film is much more akin to Home Alone 2, just as Luke’s character is much closer to that of Kevin in Home Alone 2. Whereas Kevin defends his house in Winnetka out of necessity, there’s no need for him to defend his uncle’s house in New York. Similarly, where the Wet Bandits target Kevin’s house in Home Alone, he actually lures them to his uncle’s house in Home Alone 2. Finally, whereas Kevin’s strategies are largely designed to forestall the Wet Bandits in Home Alone, they are simply designed to torture them in Home Alone 2. Indeed, the house in Home Alone 2 is barely a house at all, so badly is it in need of renovation, but just an empty shell that Kevin turns into a torture-machine, and so giving rise to fan theories about his afterlife as Jigsaw.
In other words, where Kevin dismantles the Wet Bandits out of necessity in the first film, he does so for pure enjoyment in the second film – and that psychopathic legacy of Home Alone reaches its apotheosis in Better Watch Out. At moments in Home Alone, the Wet Bandits almost gravitate to the position of slashers, or stalkers, but can never quite occupy that role, even in the eerie scene where they are trailing Kevin down his street in Winnetka. The reasons for that are made clear in Better Watch Out, where both Luke and Kevin have absorbed the father’s function as monstrous patriatch, meaning that there is no need for paternal authority any more, but no need for an invader either. Throughout the second part of the film, two types of resolution seem imminent – either Luke’s father will come home, or a “real” slasher will arrive to contain and overtake Luke’s own slasher agenda. With neither of these options coming to pass, however, the parents’ absence from the film takes on an odd valency and intensity, as if their absence also contained the absence of the invader they might protect against. In another kind of film, that might be a comforting prospect, but here it suggests a more ontological absence, the erasure of nuclear parents as a reality principle.
Indeed, by halfway through the film, the parents have ceased to exist, at least in terms of their societal function, while Luke’s father, in particular, barely seems present even in the brief opening scenes where he does appear. Typically, Patrick Warburton thrives on a kind of comic ultra-masculinity, but here he is so effete and obsessed with Christmas decorations that his wife asks him contemptuously if he is gay, while refusing to even consider the prospect of sleeping with him when they eventually return from their party at the end of the film. Nor can Ashley’s boyfriends fill in this patriarchal void either, which they both contour in different ways. On the one hand, Ricky, Ashley’s current boyfriend, is the only character in the film who doesn’t have pearly white skin, and is therefore relegated by Luke to a mere “grease monkey,” whose only function is to enhance his own victimhood at being passed over, as young white man, by Ashley. On the other hand, Jeremy, Ashley’s ex-boyfriend, looks uncannily like Zac Ephron – I initially thought it was Zac Ephron – the ultimate aspirational horizon of young white men, at least as they’re represented in American cinema. The fact that it’s not Ephron, and that Dacre Montgomery has been shot to look like Ephron, only enhances this awareness of Ephron himself as representing a horizon of both whiteness and masculinity that Luke, to his immense incelic victimhood, will never achieve.
And it is that all-encompassing sense of victimhood that makes white masculinity seem inherently psychopathic here, even or especially in its most benign incarnation, and even or especially as it is inherently emasculated by these psychopathic delusions as well. From the logic of the film, it’s not hard to see why so many white criminals form psychopathic-depressive dyads, since the alternation between delusional grandeur and depressive disillusion is here attributed to the logic and experience of white masculinity itself. As the film proceeds, Luke grows more psychopathic and Garrett more depressive, but their mannerisms also start to bleed over into each other, until they feel like a sustained vision of whiteness, unthinkable without the other, and unthinkable outside of whiteness itself. For that reason, Luke and Garrett also feel closer to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold than any other depiction of American criminals since the Columbine massacre, just as their actions towards Ashley, Garrett and Jeremy feel like part of a broader mass murder spectacle, as targeted and as personal as they seem to be, if only because everything is personal for Luke and Garrett, so profound and so expansive is their sense of supreme and definitive victimhood.
That produces a somewhat paradoxical ending, since while Luke wants to revel in the spectacle of killing, he only receives his power from his ability to fold everything – even murder – back into his assurance of normalcy, and his normcore swagger. In a chilling conclusion, he puts the last pieces in place to frame Jeremy for his crime just as his parents are returning home, creeping back into bed, and putting on his night tape – a tracklist of amniotic “womb music” – before his parents enter downstairs to discover the bodies. Screaming, his mother runs upstairs to check that he is OK, and while she may have been tetchy with him at the beginning of the film, her attitude is very different now. Cradling him in her arms, as the amniotic sounds play in the background, she provides what he wanted all along, and what Ashley refused to give him in the moments before her death – an affirmation of his precious, privileged and unrivalled status within the emotional economy of the household as a whole. Not only the slasher, then, but the single mothers of suburban horror, now turn out to be complicit in everything they seem to be defined against, as the adoring and exclusive gaze of the mother turns out to have simply enabled the next generation of slashers ,by telling sons, in lieu of their fathers, that they were more profound, and more central to suburban normality, than their fathers could have ever been.
While Luke may value the spectacle of his crime, then, it is only for the sake of inhabiting his normality even more effectively. This, in the end, may be what Harris and Klebold didn’t understand, and why their spree ended so abruptly when they were inside the Columbine library. As Dave Cullen, the author of Columbine suggests, it was the concealment of the crime as it was being planned – the ability to seem normal while planning mass murder – that generated their greatest frisson, just as it was their capacity to envisage a spectacle killing in the midst of suburban normalcy that drove them to crime in the first place. At the end of Better Watch Out, Peckover and Kahn capture this paradox via a deft triple ending that suspends Luke at the very nexus between spectacle and normality in this way, providing him with an enjoyment that even Harris and Klebold didn’t attain. First, as mentioned, Luke’s mother comforts him in bed. Second, he looks out the window to see that Ashley has just survived, and is being loaded into an ambulance. Third, shortly after the credits roll, a brief scene comes up in which Luke confesses to his mother that he is “worried” about Ashley and wants to follow her to the hospital, presumably to dispose of her, in a distant echo of the diffuse space that elapses between Halloween and Halloween II.
Early in the film Luke’s mother tells Ashley that Luke often sleepwalks, and that they are concerned about what he does when he dreams. For that reason, she asks Ashley to do a simple task when Luke goes to bed – balance a pencil on the doorknob of his bedroom, so the family will know if he has left the room after going to sleep. This pencil circulates throughout the narrative – at one point it becomes involved in one of the grisliest scenes – and is Luke’s final impediment. Eventually, he realises that if he places it on the door, he can climb out the window of the adjoining room and climb in his own, thereby confirming to his parents that he was asleep in bed the entire night. Yet the pencil also bleeds into the triple ending as well, replacing the porous thresholds of an older suburban horror with a new kind of killer, whose sense of his own visionary victimhood is infinitely more terrifying than the more overtly antisocial elements of the traditional slasher. Call it the real Home Alone 3, then, a vision of what Kevin McAllister would be doing in the present tense, as well as one of the most original, eerie and unremitting horror films to be released over the last decade.
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