Call me naive, but when somebody says you're about to watch an indie horror comedy, your brain doesn't prepare you for a movie that'll have you reaching for a cushion in the first 20 minutes. That assumption was my first mistake when watching Better Watch Out, the feature debut from Canadian filmmaker Chris Peckover. For a comedy, it certainly doesn't hold back on delivering the fear.
But that's the kind of sadistic comedian Peckover is. He gets a serious kick out of crafting savage moments that make you laugh, and then make you feel like the worst person on the planet for doing so. We can get with that. And apparently so can the critics, who've been praising his debut throughout its successful festival run.
With only days left until Better Watch Out hits the US public, Movie Pilot sat down with the director and spoke about what makes him tick — whether that be homages to Home Alone, pranking Patrick Warburton, or observing how Better Watch Out has provided a platform for everyone involved. Because not only are its stars heading toward Hollywood lights as we speak, but the movie has opened doors for him, too. So, readers, meet the auteur you need to have on your radar: Chris Peckover.
Movie Pilot: Congratulations, Chris — what a movie! I'm still pretty shook, to be honest. I did not expect to be so scared.
Chris Peckover: "Haha, thank you! And I know, right — but that raises a good point, which is like, what is the horror comedy genre?"
How would you personally define it?
"For me, horror comedy's president, king and creator is Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Darkman) and also movies like Shaun of the Dead, which is essentially a comedy about horror. Better Watch Out falls into that category: It's a dark comedy with horror elements. The funny stuff makes you go, 'should I be laughing at that?' and later rewards you for it."
Totally. I was laughing so much, but at really fucked up parts. I always thought Home Alone's Kevin McCallister was a secret little psychopath but man, your kid just completely blew him out of the water. Do you think, in a sense, putting a realistic spin on those pranks was your way of taking down a '90s icon?
"It started from our love of sadism humor and John Hughes movies, but not just Home Alone. All of his films (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller) have this really truthful awkwardness. They find people at their most awkward time; at the discovery of their sexuality. Movies like that don't really happen anymore. So we wondered, 'what would a 2017 coming of age story look like now?'
"One of the big things we realized is that if you're 12 years old right now, you've never known life without a screen, or without instant access to whatever your ID wants to look up on Google. There is this really weird divide between how much smarter kids are today and how their emotional intelligence — the ability to communicate and control their emotions — is lagging because they're not getting as many social opportunities as smarts opportunity. That's literally what the internet has caused."
Absolutely, and you brought technology into the film in a really interesting way. At 12 I would have no idea how to pull off the things this kid nails so easily.
"What's weird is that a lot of people watch this movie and are like 'oh my god, he's a genius.' No, most 12-year-olds know how to do this stuff. Everything that he pulls off I just quickly googled."
That's so twisted.
"Yeah, it's terrifying! There's this really funny difference in viewing experience in terms of adults vs. teenagers. When teenagers watch it they're not wowed by how he pulls things off, they're gripped by the choices he makes and the emotion of it all. Whereas adults are like 'this is unrealistic, no 12-year-old is this smart, this is a dumb movie.' And I'm like: 'Talk to your kids, man.' "
Speaking of teenagers, what can you tell us about Levi Miller?
"I lucked out so hardcore. We read about 200 boys for the two roles, Luke (Miller) and his best friend Garret (Ed Oxenbould). In hindsight Zach (Kahn, co-writer) and I really shot ourselves in the foot with creating a 12-year-old lead who has to hit so many different parts of the spectrum. I call it a 'motherfucker role,' where basically no matter what you do, you're screwed. No one could possibly play every element of the character. But Levi pulled it off.
"I can't emphasis enough the strangeness, the goosebumps I got from his audition. Something you take for granted is the sexuality of this character; out of all 200 auditions, nobody else brought any sexuality to the role. Levi brought a power that was terrifying even in the audition. You could see this desire, and it's really uncomfortable seeing someone so young expressing themselves physically in this way. Thankfully, Levi's comedy timing was at 100%, so he was able to balance what could have been overwhelming with humor and charm. He's got it all."
For real. The first comparison that really came into my mind was Ezra Miller in We Need To Talk About Kevin, but he was older than Levi and he didn't exude a sexual presence. So seeing someone who's the same age as the kids in Stranger Things, for example, was really disturbing.
"Yeah, it's weird. He's going to have such a fun career. Do you know what his next project is? He's starring in Ava Duvernay's A Wrinkle in Time. He's one of the three leads. He's having the time of his life."
Wow, amazing! And with Dacre Montgomery too, who has such a small part in Better Watch Out, but he's now the Red Ranger in the new Power Rangers and will be in Stranger Things Season 2. In a way, you've kickstarted their careers.
"I lucked out. I feel like between Levi, Olivia (DeJonge, who plays Ashley), Ed (as Garrett) and Dacre (as Jeremy), we found the most talented Australian teenagers and put them all in one film. They're all blowing up right now, and I'm not surprised. When we were working together you could see they were all incredible. I don't know if I would say I kickstarted their careers, but I've certainly got to be play a role in the early stages."
You must feel a little bit proud...
"Haha, I mean, I'm not going to lie. They all gave the best performances of their lives to this movie."
"We haven't even talked about Liv! Liv's role is really interesting — perhaps the hardest and the subtlest. I started observing during the film that actors almost always only use half their face; they either use their eyes or their mouths. Very rarely do they do both. There's a portion of the movie where Olivia has duct tape on her face, and it never occurred to me to think about that while casting. Wonderfully, out of everyone I have ever worked with, she is the most expressive person with her eyes. She doesn't say a word in a couple of scenes but you know exactly what she's thinking and what she's planning. I'm expecting big things from her soon, too."
You played around with gore in quite an interesting way, going far in some scenes and holding back in others. Why?
"I think that my favorite horror movies show gore often enough to be dangerous but not often enough for it to pornographic. I call it "the Jaws effect." If we had seen every time the shark attacked someone it would become pornographic; the special effects take you out of the moment and the character development. But every time you don't show it, your imagination fills in the blanks 10 times harder. I wanted to show enough gore to be dangerous, but also hold back in some of my favorite moments. My hope is that you have a really, really graphic image of what happened in your head, even though I cut away before that happens."
Taking us away from the movie a little bit but sticking on a Christmas theme, if you could play harmless pranks and mess up one celebrity's Christmas — nobody gets hurt — who would you pick?
"Well, there are two ways you can go: You can go mean and pick a celebrity you don't like, or you can go lovingly. I think if have the opportunity to prank someone, it would be somebody that I love, and celebrate them in their human moment. You know what? I reckon Patrick Warburton would be so fun to prank. He's always the funniest person in the room, and he's really funny when he's caught off guard. You want someone who will handle it with grace afterwards, and not be angry. I feel like he's the kind of guy that will make it even funnier than you thought it was going to be."
What was it like working with him?
"OK so, there's this one scene that involves Christmas trinkets and it wasn't in the script. Patrick comes up to me and goes: 'I have a weird idea. I have this box of Christmas ornaments that I've collected over the years...' and he had all these camp decorations, like Judi Garland's ruby red slippers, Scarlett O'Hara and Marilyn Monroe. And he was like, 'Can we riff on how I just want to put all these gay Christmas ornaments on the tree and my wife is thinking that's weird?' And of course Virginia Madsen, when she hears, is like 'of course we're doing this!' That was their very first scene together and their instant chemistry lasted throughout the movie because of that improvised scene. I'm so glad that Patrick put himself out there."
That makes it so much better!
"Yes, I know! He was like 'what, can't a straight man like gay things?!' He's fucking hilarious. Patrick Warburton is a gift to the world."
Great choice of prankee!
What is the worst Christmas gift you've ever given to someone?
"Oh man, am I gonna tell you this? So, as a prank — 'cause if you can't tell from the movie, I like pranking people — I got a friend a set of wolf-themed underwear. The front was the wolf's face, so you fill in the 3D snout, like it's staring at everyone. But the recipient was not very happy, which I was shocked by. Apparently his partners were were laughing at him or something. Maybe he had a weirdly shaped wolf."
Well, that's hardly your fault.
"Exactly. Perhaps it was too intimate a gift."
Anyone that doesn't love canine-themed gift is a questionable friend.
"Thank you! It's a constant reminder that no matter how funny you think you are, always buy gifts that are a reflection of them and not of you."
You have quite a sadistic sense of humor, don't you?
"Oh absolutely. That's going to be an on going thing. I just can't help it anymore. I just have to be a dick in my humor. If you don't laugh inappropriately at least once in something I've made, I've failed."
That's a good style summary, keep that. What's next?
"Well, I can't give too much away right now but let's just say it's a supernatural horror movie. I'm getting to stretch my wings with a bigger budget. Better Watch Out has really opened a lot of doors. I'm really excited to step through them and show what I've got."
Any hints? Are we talking vampires?
"Let's just say that if Better Watch Out was a subversion of the home invasion movie, this is a subversion of the possession story. And it may or may not involve a doppelgänger."
Oh, yes please! And, speaking of not giving much away, do you think trailers ruin the enjoyment of horror movies?
"If you know you're gonna go watch the movie anyway, yes. So if you know you want to watch Better Watch Out, don't watch the trailer. Of course it's going to give away a lot of great parts. But I appreciate that trailers don't ruin enjoyment if you were never going to watch the film to begin with. If you're not convinced, or curious but not motivated, watch the trailer — it's really good. It'll get your blood pumping. Like, I know I'm gonna watch Blade Runner 2049. I'm not gonna watch the trailer. Why would I?
"At the end of the day, a trailer's job is to get your butt in the seat by any means possible. It's unfortunate, but it's what it takes. So while the auteur in me is screaming, the unpaid student loans part of me is like alright, let's have a great trailer."
And a great trailer he has. So, if you're still umm-ing over whether to check out Better Watch Out this weekend, feast on the festivities below:
Better Watch Out hits theaters and on demand October 6. Get ready to have your balls jingled!