The Babysitter (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Babysitter,” directed by McG and based on the screenplay by Brian Duffield, is particularly difficult for me to review because I acknowledge that it offers a few laughs, the two leading performances are highly watchable, and the premise involving a preteen’s discovery that his babysitter is actually a part of a Satanic cult is so wild, I was excited how the story is going to take shape. But without a shadow of doubt, the film belongs under the category of children-in-danger movies, and it is most unfortunate that it keeps the protagonist under constant torment—so constant that right from the opening scene this boy is already being terrorized at school.
Children-in-peril pictures can work given a sharp, intelligent writing that functions as commentary. For example, it can tackle the subject of young people being so sheltered that modern parenting is essentially training future adults to constantly demand being in a safe space. In my opinion, children-in-peril movies rarely work as a straightforward horror-thriller, or even as a horror-comedy, because there is a tendency toward fetishizing not only the violence or gore but also our expectation that a child must not be harmed or mutilated in any way. In other words, films that generate thrills solely through the guise of the audience not wanting to a child being hurt can be considered as lowest hanging fruit.
And so throughout the film, I constantly had to ask myself what the material is saying behind the superficial entertainment. I found none. I suppose one can claim that the story is about a twelve-year-old, who is pretty much afraid of everything, being forced to to find courage in himself to stand up against bullies. But that is a stretch because the villains in the film, members of the Satanic cult (Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee, Bella Thorne, Andrew Bachelor), are purposefully written as walking stereotypes.
In real life, bullies are more than archetypes and in order for the film to have meaning beyond the images on screen, the writing must command depth and subtlety. Those who dare to compare this film, for example, to Joss Whedon’s writing (“The Cabin in the Woods,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”) clearly have little to no understanding about why Whedon’s works possess cultural relevance. They aren’t just post-modern, have quirky premises, or tapping into zeitgeist. They are genuinely saying something beyond what we see and experience on screen. These works care about teenagers and young adults.
It is too bad because I really enjoyed the central performances here. Samara Weaving as Bee the babysitter reminded me at times of Margot Robbie’s ability to go from warmly intrigued to sexually electric, while Judah Lewis as Cole the fearful adolescent brought back flashes of Corey Haim in the underrated 1986 coming-of-age picture “Lucas.” A standout scene in the picture is a dramatic moment when Cole reveals to Bee that he feels such a weirdo at times that, essentially, he feels helpless in his own skin. This is such a moving scene that I wished the movie had been about the bond between the sitter and the preteen, completely throwing out the wacky chases, over-the-top gore, and absurd resolution.
The horror-comedy will certainly entertain some, but those looking for a more substantial story and character development with smart decisions throughout are best advised to stay away. And because of the title, it must be stated outright that “The Babysitter” is not at all a successful throwback to late-‘70s and ’80s slashers. There is no suspense to be had here.