Ah, the Halloween season. The weather’s cooling down, the sun’s setting earlier, the leaves are browning and pumpkins are being carved for decoration and pies. It also means you’re sure to find a couple of new scary movies trying to make their genre marks while holding their own against the classics. And while Hollywood is currently focused on the horror of lascivious producers, Netflix and director McG are focused on getting their fantastical little yarn called The Babysitter out to thrill and make you laugh. The success rate of that, unfortunately, isn’t what it should be.
From the onset, preteen protagonist Cole (“Demolition”’s Judah Lewis) is a checklist of every movie nerd stereotype turned up to 12: terrified of EVERYTHING (even his own shadow would be afraid of its shadow), dresses like an outdated 1990s computer programmer, bullied by the older kids and has one friend in sweetly neighbor girl Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind). The parents (Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino) are around to dole out the typical advice absentee parents give before disappearing and telling their son he’s too young to understand “Mad Men”. Enter Bee (Samara Weaving of TV’s “Ash vs. Evil Dead”), his unfathomably smart and sexy babysitter and the only person he doesn’t feel self-conscious about, which would be sweet if it wasn’t for the fact that a young man on the cusp of entering the teen years still requires a babysitter, but this isn’t really a movie built on adhering to plausibility. Another weekend means the parents are gone and Cole and Bee have the house to themselves. After a day of fun and games and interested to find out what goes on when he’s asleep, Cole spies as Bee and her friends – jock Max (Robbie Amell), cheerleader Allison (Bella Thorne), “token” motormouth John (Andrew Bachelor) and goth girl Sonya (Hana Mae Lee) – as they spin bottles, play truth or dare, let unbridled teen hormones out to play for brief flickers of moments. You know, normal teen behavior.
That is, until Bee stabs her date in the head with “ceremonial” knives and drains it of blood for her and her friends to collect. Now might be the time to mention these teens, except the corpse, are practicing Satanists, casting blood rituals to get what they want without having to put in any real effort to do so (keep in mind these are the kids who probably saw “Scream 4” first and decided Emma Roberts had the right motives for homicide over Skeet Ulrich, Laurie Metcalf and Scott Foley’s more layered and “relatable” reasons) and they need the blood of an innocent for their spells to work. And who else could be more innocent than a certain defenseless nerd with a crush? The night will be long and there will be blood (lots and lots of blood) spilled as babysitter and charge battle for… eh, who cares? It’s an unapologetically crass horror movie with a lot of referential humor and loads of gore. We all know the drill.
McG has always come off as one of the most tonally unpredictable directors in the biz, jumping from the “Charlie’s Angels” franchise and “This Means War” to the rather underrated “Terminator: Salvation” and “We Are Marshall”; now, he’s decided it’s time to put his touch on the horror-comedy genre by way of Kevin Williamson. At least, that’s what screenwriter Brian Duffield’s (of the infamous “Jane Got a Gun”) script wants to attempt here, as an elevator pitch would easily go “take the Satanists from “Rosemary’s Baby”, make them sexy (and shirtless, in Mr. Amell’s case), pit them against Macaulay Calkin’s character from “Home Alone” if he was more hapless and less Jigsaw and make the humor somewhere between Edgar Wright visual and the “Feast” ironic. McG’s usual style is an interesting paradox, working in some areas and failing quite astoundingly in many others. And all of that’s without going into the onslaught of jump scares McG, Mr. Duffield and the sound mixers thought was necessary to litter through the entire last hour of the film. For Halloween parties, with the right sound system, drinking parties could be played to those jumps. But play carefully.
There’s also the film’s gore and violence levels that actually manage to surpass… nearly every single mainstream slasher movie ever made. McG, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (best known for inspiring that famous Christian Bale rant on the set of “Terminator: Salvation”) and a team of special effect and makeup whizzes are really having some fun pushing the limits of their TV-MA rating with gallons of blood being sprayed in every direction – but primarily all over one of the cultists in a moment straight out of Mel Brooks’ “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”. Make no mistake, “The Babysitter”’s strength comes from just how unapologetically savage it is in dispatching its supporting cast and for that, the audience is sure to “get their money’s worth.”
As for the acting? This is a production that needs a good child actor and young actress to work off each other for any of this material to work and, thankfully, McG has dedicated team players in Samara Weaving and Judah Lewis, giving Bee and Cole enough intrigue and panache to keep you watching to the end. The cult’s disciple’s don’t really require much depth aside from what the genre , which gives their performers the ability to play to their strengths. Ms. Thorne is stylish and sarcastic, Mr. Amell flashes his trademarked CW abs for the audience to savor and Mr. Bachelor fires off one-liners to varying degrees of politically incorrect success and failure. The highlight of the group would undoubtedly be Ms. Lee, who gets some laughs playing a more audible and sinister version of her “Pitch Perfect” character; and in a beret, no less. The rest of the cast is serviceable, if perfunctory.
Of all the “second tier” Netflix acquisitions this year, The Babysitter is arguably the best, thanks to its lean running time of 85 minutes, the chemistry between its two leads and some ghoulishly outlandish death scenes that could earn a deserved place in the pantheon of horror films. Beyond that, it’s not really something that hasn’t been done before and stronger. Perhaps if there’s any reunions between director and author, they would do best to strengthen what they have on paper before committing to how outlandishly they die.