Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 6

Better Watch Out (2016)

The advent of digital streaming has been a huge benefit to the independent horror movie. The ease of digital releases, combined with the eternal popularity of the horror genre, has made it easier than ever for smaller films to sneak onto the market. Naturally, the Christmas themed horror picture – an even rarer beast – has benefited from this as well. Surprisingly, there have been three new holiday horror releases this year. I've already talked about “Lake Alice.” There was also an Elf on the Shelf inspired horror movie, which seems inevitable. In there somewhere was “Better Watch Out.” Going into the movie, I knew nothing about it, other than it was a December-set horror film and had gotten decent reviews. This lack of knowledge actually helped me out. “Better Watch Out” is one of those films improved by knowing little about it.

Twelve-year-old Luke has a crush on his babysitter, seventeen-year-old Ashley. Ashley is leaving town for college soon. Knowing this, Luke hopes to make a move on the girl. His parents go off to a Christmas party of some sort, leaving the boy alone with the object of his desires. However, what both hoped to be a normal night soon takes a strange turn. The house receives threatening phone calls. A pizza order nobody called for shows up. A prowler is seen outside the house. Soon, a brick is thrown through a window and a threatening man with a guy lurks through the building. Ashley and Luke work together to survive but soon discover that things are not as they appear.

“Better Watch Out” begins, appearing to be one type of horror movie. The home invasion horror flick was briefly popular at the end of the last decade, with “Them,” “The Strangers,” and the remake of “Funny Games” all coming out close to each other. At first, “Better Watch Out” appears to be an especially colorful and light-hearted example of this subgenre. The first forty minutes is devoted to Luke and Ashley hiding inside their own home. There's solid suspense, as the two hide behind a closed door or inside a closest as the attacker wanders into the room. The film even induces some squirms, such as when Ashley tumbles from an attic entrance with spiders crawling across her face. The faint glow of the Christmas light, and the reflection off the snow outside, lends a slightly different feeling to these moments. The interaction between Ashley and Luke, often veering between hysterics and catty dialogue, mixes in some humor.

It's well done but turns out to be an elaborate misdirect for where “Better Watch Out” is actually going. In fact, if you're interested in “Better Watch Out” and haven't heard much about it, I suggest skipping the rest of this review. About midway through, Ashley discovers the home invasion was invented by Luke. In a turn recalling Mendel W. Johnson's “Let's Go Play at the Adams',” the babysitter is bound and her ward is revealed as a psychopath. In addition to perhaps saying some things about male entitlement, “Better Watch Out” becomes an effective battle of wills. Luke plays twisted games while Ashley tries to outsmart him. There's also a slight slasher element, as boy exterminates witnesses and romantic rivals. One death scene involves probably the most morbid homage to “Home Alone” you'll ever see. Another plays out to “Carol of the Bells,” a Christmas carol I've always thought sounded a little spooky.

Buoying the film is a strong pair of central performances. Olivia DeJonge – who is carving out a decent career as a scare queen with this film, “The Visit,” and “Scare Campaign” – plays Ashley. (Interestingly, DeJonge's “Visit” co-star, Ed Oxenbould, appears as Luke's smart-ass friend.) She strikes a really nice balance between a likable girlishness and a stronger sense of self-preservation. Once the twist come, it becomes especially easy to root for her. Levi Miller plays Luke and is similarly good at playing the twist. He's convincing as both a precocious pre-teen as well as a conniving psychopath. The two play off of each other so well. And an element that reminded me of old eighties horror movies, the only well-known actors appear in bit parts. Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen play Luke's unaware parents.

“Better Watch Out” was originally named “Safe Neighborhood.” Which is a fairly non-descriptive title but does point out that the film's Christmas elements are relatively minor. There's some snow, some decorations, and some festive songs but you could remove the holiday stuff and the plot would be entirely unchanged. Despite that, I really liked “Better Watch Out.” The script is really clever, catching the audience off-guard in a way that's rare for the horror genre. I don't know if it will become a new holiday horror classic but I really had a good time with it. Check it out if you can! [8/10]

Olaf's Frozen Adventure (2017)

At the end of November, Pixar released their latest masterpiece. “Coco” is a visually beautiful and incredibly powerful story, about how we remember loved ones, the value of family and art. It's also a movie explicitly concerned with the autumn festivals, taking place on the Day of the Dead. Despite this, and seemingly because they were worried that a film with only Latino characters wouldn't be popular, Disney stuck “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” in front of the movie. That's despite the “short,” obviously meant to be a television special, running for over twenty minutes. The short has been very poorly received and Disney has already promised to remove it from the remainder of “Coco's” theatrical release. But it's Christmas related, so I decided to review it here.

I'm reasonably fond of “Frozen” and even I find Olaf the happy snowman a little grating. Building an entire short around him was, perhaps, a miscalculation. This “Frozen Adventure” concerns Olaf going around Arendelle, collecting holiday traditions, because Elsa and Anna have forgotten their own. Conceptually, that would've let the filmmakers explore different winter festivities. And it sorta' does that. We see a Jewish family spin a dreidel. Another family celebrate St. Lucia's Day. But the short mostly focuses on less specific traditions. Such as decorating a tree, eating fruitcake, or knitting Christmas sweaters. This leads to many scenes of Olaf reacting to various new characters, in various loud ways. “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” leans on the frantic and shout-y way too much.

Though hey were widely praised, I honestly thought the songs was one of the weakest parts of “Frozen.” Disney couldn't even get the original film's song writer's back for this short. And that really shows. The songs in “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” are instantly forgettable. And the film is mostly songs. The main song, “Ring in the Season,” is reprised three whole times. The lyrics are repetitive and overly literal. Even the singers don't seem that invested. Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell clearly phone it in.

So is there anything I liked about “Olaf's Frozen Adventure?” During one of the songs, there's a pretty neat sequence done as if it's a Christmas sweater. There's one or two decent bits of physical comedy, during the scene where Olaf causes a sled to crash into a gorge. Otherwise, “Olaf's Frozen Adventure” feels tortorously long at only twenty-one minutes, a sappy and largely unnecessary extension of an already popular brand. Luckily, “Coco” comes immediately afterwards to wash that bad taste out of your mouth. [5/10]

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