Among horror movies, slasher films are a curious sub-genre because so many of them fail as horror movies. Bound by conventions that rob them of any horrific tension, they rely on jump scares as their only meaningful way to jolt their audiences. And yet, for such a legacy of underperformance, slasher films are huge fun to watch, either to see how far ahead of the story one can stay, or to ride along with a cast and director who are in on the joke and either know how awful their movie is, or who manage to subvert expectations and turn a routine bloodbath into something unexpected and—dare we dream?—genuinely entertaining. And for that last, most rarefied, category we have few movies to turn to. But one worthy of our consideration is The Babysitter, a 2017 effort that will never be confused for high art but is is a guilty pleasure fully deserving of both descriptors.
The story features Cole, a 12-year-old boy who is pretty easily freaked out by just about everything in the world, is regularly bullied by the neighborhood knuckleheads, and whose parents really enjoy a night on the town. The only thing protecting him is Bee, a neighborhood teenager who is a few years older than Cole, so she might as well be an adult for all he cares. She is both drop dead gorgeous and harmonizes on Cole’s precise geek wavelength. So for Cole, she falls somewhere between the most awesome big sister in the world, and a crush so far out of his league that he stands a better chance of being eaten by a shark in mid-air while falling out of a plane. Bee is Cole’s parents’ go-to for a babysitter, which Cole both loves and resents. He figures he’s old enough to be left on his own, but hey, and evening with Bee is pretty awesome. So one night, Bee comes over, and Cole decides to spy on her and her squad of friends, whose collective sexual energy could spin up a 100-ton dynamo until it breaks. But a game of spin the bottle suddenly turns horrific when Bee casually murders the poor schlep who was brought along, thinking he’d somehow been invited to hang with the cool kids for a night. Cole must now survive a night in the house with a sinister cult led by his best friend/crush with nothing more than his wits, a fairly threadbare sense of courage and his next-door neighbor Melanie. If he survives till dawn, maybe Cole will figure our that Melanie is clearly the girl he ought to be hanging out with. Or will he get a knife to the head first?
So…this movie isn’t particularly scary, unless you’re the kind of person who shuffles around town and likes to get picked up by suspiciously beautiful people to go hang out in a stranger’s house for an evening. In most respects, The Babysitter is a chase comedy masquerading as a slasher, but that’s okay, because by the time we figure all of that out, we’re already three dead bodies into this thing and really just want to see exactly how the rest of the cast buys the farm. The director is pretty aware that one of the things that keeps our attention during a teen bodycount movie is our morbid fascination with how each person dies, and so to that end, the Babysitter delivers, with suitable Rube Goldberg outcomes for everyone who doesn’t survive to the end credits.
While hardly a groundbreaking subversion of the slasher genre, this movie still turns enough familiar territory upside down to trigger our curiosity for how things might end for poor Cole. Instead of a gang of sex-driven teens pursued by a lone killer, we’ve got a lone boy hunted by a pack of hotties who clearly would rather be making out with each other. Instead of inflating the tension by making a cascade of increasingly questionable survival-situation decisions, Cole keeps his head and uses his smarts against villains who are the kind of dopes that chase a kid into a crawlspace face-first. And the proceedings never come off as a form of punishment inflicted upon the characters by their writer. Instead, the whole exercise is a kind of weird tough love to make Cole a whole lot tougher and more self-sufficient than he would be otherwise. Most kids shouldn’t have to go through a night-long murder festival to get there, but this is hardly the forum to argue such a logical point.
Perhaps the best part about all of this is the relationship between Cole and Bee, which really carries some genuine emotional weight. Bee doesn’t talk down to Cole. She doesn’t play along with him. She genuinely likes the kid, and Cole genuinely likes her, too. So when the heel turn comes and she starts chasing after him, it’s not just a simple discovery of a Monster in Our Midst. It’s getting stabbed in the back by a friend, and that can hurt more than the real thing. Even though this all becomes a delivery mechanism for Cole to ditch his fantasies about women and embrace their realities in the form of Melanie, we feel for Cole when Bee betrays him. And most importantly, Bee feels it, too.
We see this in the moment of truth, when Bee’s fellow cultists come for Cole in his bedroom, and his only defense is to pretend, unconvincingly, to be asleep. They have already proved their willingness to kill. And they need Cole’s blood. But Bee knows she doesn’t have to kill him for it and takes only what she needs. Things go south from there, but she tried to keep her young friend out of it, and how many babysitters would ever give their young charges such consideration? Just the homicidal Satanic ones, apparently. More’s the pity.