Somehow Everybody Ignored the Other Zeitgeist Horror Masterpiece of 2017

Adam Baran on Better Watch Out, which is to toxic masculinity what Get Out is to racism. And it's a Christmas movie too!

When Jordan Peele’s Get Out premiered in February, it stood poised to capture the collective zeitgeist. Trump had spent more than a year espousing both overt and coded racist notions that played on fears that whites would soon become a minority. In his second month of holding the highest office in the land, he continued a campaign of bigoted shock and awe, taking aim at Muslims, African Americans and Latinx people. In February, most of my friends were still walking around in a daze, averting our eyes every time the President said or tweeted something unbelievably racist or showed that he knew little and valued even less the history of people of color in America. Who can forget his ‪February 2 gaffe in which he tweeted about Frederick Douglass as though the long-dead former slave and abolitionist were still alive “getting recognized more and more”? With racist behaviors newly emboldened across America, Get Out fed into our collective anxieties (and guilt) and became this year’s most buzzed-about hit.

Another horror movie came out this year that brilliantly captured a narrative that’s dominated our lives in 2017, but whose unfortunate release date failed to earn it anything close to the excitement that greeted Get Out. That film is Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out, an utterly savage story about toxic masculinity, rape and the deep-seated tendencies of men – especially the innocent- kind-seeming ones – to commit violence against women.

Released on October 6, Better Watch Out earned critical praise as an inventive blackly comic horror tale, but barely cleared $20,000 at the U.S. box office. (It is now streaming on Shudder.) Maybe we were all too busy reading the explosive Harvey Weinstein story the New York Times broke the day before Better Watch Out came out, or maybe (more likely) nobody wanted to see a Christmas-themed movie in October, even if it was a horror movie. Too bad, because if Better Watch Out had come out in December, after the aforementioned Weinstein article led to the #metoo movement that’s brought down slews of powerful men who were revealed to have committed violence, rape and sexual misconduct toward the (usually but not always) female objects of their “affection,” it’s my opinion it would have become a massive hit on par with Get Out.

Better Watch Out begins with two teenage boys – the wispy and fey good son Luke and his nerdy best friend Garrett – talking about Luke’s plan to get his babysitter Ashley to hook up with him. Luke’s intention, we learn, is to put on a horror movie and hope that Ashley cuddles up with him forever. A little misguided, perhaps, and as the viewer we might be forgiven for thinking this hopeless notion is just another one of those sure to be hilarious attempts by a geek to get a pretty girl to fall for him à la Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, who we should recall eventually has sex with an extremely drunk teen queen and tries to take a picture of her while sleeping, a sequence of events which would earn outrage if it were featured in a film today.

There are subtle signs of toxic masculinity and rapey impulses running throughout the family in the early scenes of Better Watch Out. Patrick Warburton gives off heavily creepy vibes as Luke’s dad, complimenting Ashley on her beauty and being a dick to his wife, played by the great Virginia Madsen. But these are only things you really notice or think about after the final frame rolls around and you start to reflect on what the film is trying to do. Peckover’s setting up a brilliant [SPOILER] fake-out, in which we soon come to think that Ashley and Luke are under siege by one or more masked home invaders. Oh great, we think, another home invasion thriller in the mold of The Strangers, You’re Next, Them, etc. Another film where random psychos torment decent people and push them to their extremes. Been there, seen that, yawn …

But it’s not to be so. In the film’s big twist – stupidly spoiled by the film’s trailer (though I didn’t see it until after I’d seen the film) – we (and Ashley) realize that Luke’s plan to seduce Ashley wasn’t by showing her a horror movie, but by making her think she was in one – and that Luke, by protecting her, would win the way to her heart. Garrett helps by making menacing phone calls and pretending to die after leaving the house. Bros before hos, right dude?

When Ashley tells Luke off in thoroughly unvarnished terms, he slaps her and she falls down the stairs, only to wake up duct-taped to a chair with Luke arranging for Ashley’s exes to come over so he can kill them in front of her, and then kill her. Like so many female victims of rape or sexual harassment have discovered of once-trusted or -revered actors, politicians or friends, we realize Luke is a monster. New accusations against Dustin Hoffman – surely one of America’s most beloved actors, who shot to fame playing a sex-starved nerd not too far removed from Luke – describe the true horror of such a realization. Melissa Kester, who alleges Hoffman inserted his fingers in her vagina without asking – and in front of her boyfriend – described the experience as such: “He kind of laughed …Then I just ran out of there, and I sat in the bathroom crying. I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I felt like I’d been raped. There was no warning. I didn’t know he would do that.”

As it kicks into high gear, Better Watch Out becomes a gripping blend of dark comedy and horror that is focused on one chilling point: that the desire to rape, dominate and control women’s minds and bodies can lurk in the heart of both the blustering obvious asshole (or Republican politician) and the timid, shy little geek. We soon realize Luke is the spawn of Home Alone’s Kevin McCallister and Funny Games’ Peter and Paul, an evil little serial-killer-in-the-making who’s thought of every possible way things could go wrong and always has a solution. Whenever Garrett gets upset or freaks out over Luke’s murderous games, Luke just assures him that they will come out squeaky clean. After all, white male privilege works that way. Women are the ones who have to go through life running and hiding and getting sacrificed to monsters, while the good upstanding people in the community look the other way, just glad the monster’s not coming for them for a little while longer.

But sometimes women fight back, as Ashley does in Better Watch Out, both through actually fighting back and cleverly manipulating the two boys by playing one against the other. We too have watched women fight back these past several weeks, against Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore and, of course, the Pussy-Grabber in Chief. As the women who were allegedly abused or assaulted by Trump renew their calls to dive back into the charges leveled against Trump, and others who have spoken out face off against naysayers trying to undermine the movement, it’s remarkable to think of the strength and resilience required to outfox, evade and outmaneuver the villainous shitheads everywhere. It’s the story of 2017. Fighting back. And giving the middle finger to that rape-y asshole who’s been putting us through it for what feels like an eternity.

Adam Baran is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker whose short films have won awards and screened at LGBT film festivals around the world. He has received special acclaim for his music video Dirty Boots and his short film Jackpot, which won Best Short at the 2013 Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. He has written for MTV, VH1 and Logo, most notably the first season of the hit webseries Hunting Season. Adam is currently the co-curator of Queer/Art/Film, a monthly screening series at the IFC Center in New York City which has been praised in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Adam has programmed films for Outfest and NewFest, and is currently at work on his first feature.