Sometimes you can tell when a movie is made just for you. It contains everything that you like in a movie and satisfies you from beginning to end. Chris Peckover’s sophomore feature Safe Neighborhood (now titled Better Watch Out) is one of those movies for me. It certainly won’t be for everyone (black comedies rarely are), but it provides a fun twist on the home invasion sub-genre that should give horror fans a hilariously disturbing viewing experience.
17-year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge, The Visit) is spending a holiday evening in a quiet suburban town babysitting 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller, Pan) while his parents (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen) head to a holiday party. Luke’s friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould, also from The Visit) crashes the babysitting session in order to help Luke woo Ashley, but it isn’t long before another unexpected visitor stops by. When the phone lines are cut Ashley, Luke and Garrett must fend for themselves against this unusual foe.
Safe Neighborhood is a pitch black horror comedy. The screenplay was written by MAD TV writer Zack Kahn, if that gives you any indication as to the tone of the film. From the get-go the film never takes itself too seriously, and practically demands to be seen with a large group of the right people (the film could prove disastrous if seen with an unresponsive audience). Kahn’s script is sharp and witty, an impressive feat for being his first feature film. This isn’t high art we’re talking about here, but it sure is a lot of fun.
The film would be nothing without its core cast of teenagers, all of whom prove up to the challenge that Safe Neighborhood gives them. It helps that the actors are close to the ages of the characters they are playing. All of them are put through the wringer and play well off of each other (it’s particularly nice to see DeJonge and Oxenbould, who had such good chemistry together in The Visit, work together again). Miller isn’t always as convincing as he needs to be though. The role requires a lot from the actor, but he does pull it off for the most part.
Sans the opening credits sequence, the entirety of Safe Neighborhood takes place in one house (which was built from scratch). Peckover lays out its geography very well, so there is never any confusion as to what is transpiring on screen. This can be a tricky thing to do for one-setting films, but Peckover makes it work. Safe Neighborhood is also a violent film but none of it is gratuitous. Peckover oddly decides to imply a lot of violence without actually showing it. This was probably a consequence of budgetary constraints and not a creative decision on Peckover’s part.
What will make or break the film for most viewers is a rather drastic plot development that takes place about halfway through the film’s brief 85-minute runtime. Again, it won’t be for everyone, but it opens up the film to a whole world of possible scenarios, many of which you will not see coming. That being said, be wary when a trailer is released. It will be tempting for a studio to want to spoil it for audiences, but hopefully that will not happen. Safe Neighborhood is best watched knowing as little about the plot as possible.
There is a period of time in the second act where Safe Neighborhood plays things a little too seriously. It gets to the point where it betrays the tone of everything that came before. Make no mistake, everything that happens in the film is disturbing and in any other film would be almost too nasty to watch. It’s just that the comedic tone helps to downplay the off-putting elements. Thankfully the film course-corrects and delves right back into the black comedy, making for a wholly satisfying experience.
Safe Neighborhood provides a bonkers twist on the home invasion sub-genre that had me squealing with glee from start to finish. It has earned its place with Gremlins, Krampus and Batman Returns as part of my annual holiday viewing tradition. Be sure to track down Safe Neighborhood when it gets released. You won’t regret it.