We all have dreams of being with someone older than us. The one that is out of reach and sits only in our fantasy like a teacher, co-worker or perhaps a babysitter. In director Chris Peckover’s latest horror film SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD, we learn that such desires can be deadly. Opening as a similar story line to the recent wave of tense home invasion films, Peckover tells the story of family going through the motions during the holidays. Led by talented veteran actors such as Virginia Madsen (Candyman), Patrick Warburton (Family Guy) and rising talent like Levi Miller (Pan) and Olivia DeJonge as well as Ed Oxenbould of THE VISIT, we find that Luke (Miller) even in his early teen years still needs a babysitter. With a night of partying, Luke’s parent’s (Madsen and Warburton) are heading off to another Christmas get together, expecting just another night of their kids being babysat.
Getting ready to move to Pittsburgh, their babysitter Ashley (DeJonge) is watching Luke for the last time and as Luke’s parents leave and Ashley arrives, Luke shows that he has crafted a plan to make that once in a lifetime shot to show his love for Ashley, who is much older than he is and is dealing with relationship issues herself. Luke’s best friend, Garrett (Oxenbould) sets the plan in motion as Luke unsuccessfully attempts to win Ashley’s heart and makes for an awkward night to say the least. With the drama of young love, flirting and lust going through the motions in the house, they characters don’t realize that there is a person outside the house watching Luke and Ashley and is planning to break inside. With the game of cat and mouse between Luke, Ashley and the invader we realize that things are not what they seem and a plan is hatched by Luke and Garrett that may be more insidious and twisted then anyone ever thought.
Peckover is one of my favorite genre filmmakers and his 2010 film, UNDCOUMENTED, is one of my top films of the last fifteen years. He has an infamous and darkly twisted mind, which can take any situation and harness the reality of the horror that sits deep in dark souls. UNDOCUMENTED is a profile of tension, shadow, deep seated realistic horror that not only tackles the issue of illegal immigration but also the human monster that is infected with extreme belief that sits inside festering but is never released. SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD follows in those very gritty and exploitative foot steps as we take the classic 1980’s romantic comedy and blend it with true exploitative horror. The channeling of the idea of loving someone to death is embodied in Miller’s performance as Luke who not only captivates and connects, but manipulates the viewer into a hellish, twisted path to prove love and what we desire. A film that is in truth, really a two act film with the first half being a setup of the traditional horror troupes, jump scares, family holiday humor and misdirection, all leading to the true human monster that does not work to get into your home but is already inside. This reality of deep seeded psychotic intentions is mastered by Miller and battled by Oxenbould and repelled by DeJonge as a victim and fighter in many different senses of those roles.
Peckover understands what we feel inside. He gets it right with SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD as he is such a student of the dark game of genre filmmaking and how evil can not only infect but make for a crazy reality. He knows how to turn that screw, harness a well plotted twist, lead you along and offer a reveal that not makes you shriek (as many did during the screening) but feel so many different emotions in such an isolated space. With influences from John Hughes’s body of work, Peckover blends the funny with the idea that your never really know someone and at any moment things can flip. This is set up by the dysfunction of the family, pre-teen angst and the misdirection around the main storyline. With several nods to some of his favorite holiday films, the score and soundtrack are heavily holiday influenced as each piece of music is as black as coal. Each aspect of the score intensifies the terror and lifts several sequences to terrifying levels that conflict and scar the holiday sentiment, working in disturbing harmony with very sensory practical FX and stunts that escalate rather quickly and unexpectedly. SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD is a well-rounded, well-timed, reactionary horror reflection of what we are and what we hold deep down and never let go in the style of FUNNY GAMES, EMELIE, THE LOVED ONES and YOU’RE NEXT. A film which packs a true emotional, shriek-filled reaction.