Best described as Home Alone meets Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the sadistic horror comedy Safe Neighborhood is the kind of film that’s tough to categorize but easy to enjoy, especially if you like watching teenagers do some very twisted things for the holiday season.
Written and directed by Chris Peckover, whose found footage debut Undocumented was released by IFC Midnight back in 2011, this polished, very ‘80s-style throwback of a genre bender pits a blond babysitter — played by The Visit star Olivia DeJonge — against a vicious killer who is way craftier than one can imagine, and not necessarily who you think he is. After premiering at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, with stops in Torino and Paris, the film should see more festival gigs followed by pickups from select B-movie outlets and VOD platforms.
For the first 30 minutes or so, Safe Neighborhood plays like a rather generic mash-up of the holiday and horror movie — Silent Night, Deadly Night, anyone? — with high school beauty Ashley (DeJonge) watching over precocious 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller, who played Peter in the ill-fated Pan) while his parents go out on Christmas Eve. The usual shenanigans take place: Ashley fights on the phone with her boyfriend (Alexis Mikic), somebody does or doesn’t order pizza and Luke steals a champagne bottle to get himself drunk enough so he can put the moves on his sitter.
But things soon head south when someone sneaks inside the house and pulls off a few Scream-style scares, leading the audience to believe that this will be yet another tale of gory survival pitting innocent kids against a cold-blooded masked murderer. Think again. Upending expectations in more ways than one, Peckover’s script (from a story by Zack Kahn) throws out a major boondoggle that makes it hard to fully believe what’s happening onscreen — though that doesn’t make it any less fun, especially if you don’t mind a bit of blood and guts, or a paint can being used as a lethal weapon.
DeJonge fitfully portrays a perfect American girl who, after planning to spend a quiet night by the Yule log, winds up beaten up, felt up, bound in duct tape and much worse. She seems to be as surprised by what takes place as we are, wondering if this is all some kind of silly childish prank or perhaps the real thing (she obviously hasn’t seen the Haneke film). Miller is creepy yet adorable enough that you sort of like hanging out with Luke despite some extremely questionable behavior, while Ed Oxenbould (also in The Visit) is memorable as a nerdy friend who stays around the house for a bit too long.
Set almost entirely indoors, the action is intelligently staged and makes fine use of various household items, including the requisite flashlight, kitchen knife and lawnmower (though not in the way you think). Peckover keeps the ketchup flowing enough that gore fans will not feel shortchanged, especially during the last act, although Brian Cachia’s busy score hits what feels like too many upbeat notes. But perhaps that’s the point: Safe Neighborhood takes a night of Christmas cheer and turns it into a spectacle of sick behavior. The Grinch finally has the movie he needs.
Venue: Paris International Fantastic Film Festival
Production companies: Storm Vision Entertainment, Best Medicine Productions
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton
Director: Chris Peckover
Screenwriters: Zack Kahn, Chris Peckover
Producers: Sidonie Abbene, Brion Hambel, Paul Jensen, Brett Thornquest
Executive producers: Shane Abbess, Steven Matusko
Director of photography: Carl Robertson
Production designer: Richard Hobbs
Costume designer: Anna Cahill
Editor: Julie-Anne De Ruvo
Composer: Brian Cachia
Casting directors: Faith Martin, Michelle Morris