For out gay writer and director Chris Peckover, his relationship with horror began with a bit of unintentional trauma as a child. The man behind 2016’s Better Watch Out recalls his mom and dad going out to dinner and leaving him home with his younger brother without a sitter.
“My mom rented Child’s Play for us thinking it was a kid’s movie,” he explained, laughing, during our recent interview. “They went out to dinner, and we watched the movie and I was afraid of the dark until I was in the seventh grade!”
He wasn’t one of those people who loved being scared. Rather, he approached horror as a way of facing the fears that the movies brought out in him.
It was a few years later, when he was around 13 years old, that he saw the film that would inspire him to make horror movies. That film was Poltergeist, and specifically the scene where the lights came floating down the staircase late at night.
As one moved through JoBeth Williams, she burst into tears saying that her daughter had moved through her soul. The entire family gathered around her and it was a genuinely moving moment for Peckover.
“I remember seeing it and tears streaming down my face and I was a bit confused,” he said. “I was just deathly afraid of a clown like minutes before that and now I’m crying! What was going on here?”
The moment stuck with him, and he began his journey to filmmaking that day noting that it was that mixture of emotions that really spoke to him.
“Jump scares are fine as a tool; gore is fine as a tool,” he explained, “but what I love about horror is the vulnerability. Horror is a communal experience for me. When I walk out of the theater after a great horror film, I feel like we, the audience, have survived something together. That’s what inspires me.”
Peckover carried that inspiration with him, eventually making his first feature, 2010’s Undocumented. The film was a learning experience for him, but one of his biggest takeaways surprised him.
“It was way more graphic than Better Watch Out,” Peckover pointed out. “I learned with that film that you can’t please gorehounds. They will never get enough. I thought I wanted to chase that, but I think I’ve decided they should just watch Faces of Death on repeat.”
A couple of years later, he was approached by Zack Kahn with a script for Better Watch Out, and he saw an opportunity to make something different that could incorporate some of those lessons he’d learned along the way.
He liked Kahn’s story, but he wanted to shift its tone.
“I thought Zack had written a million dollar twist” the director said. “We talked about where it could go, and I kept thinking about Home Alone. I was a big fan of that film, and I was really in the mood for a good Christmas-themed horror-comedy.”
With that in mind, he set out to rework the script, lightening up some of the hardcore elements of Kahn’s version and concentrating on making the tone a bit more fun in the process.
Before long, they were elbows deep in casting, and Peckover admits he struck gold with his entire cast.
“I read about 200 twelve year olds for the role of Luke,” he explained. “I call that role a ‘motherfucker’ role because it’s really a wide spectrum for someone that age to be able to pull off. It was easy for all of them to get the meanness or the comedy or the cleverness or the warmth that the role needed, but it was nearly impossible to find one that could do all of those things.”
Eventually, however, he met with the Levi Miller who not only knocked the audition out of the park, but also made Peckover take a step back in the process.
“Levi added a sexuality to the character that I had not written into it, really,” he pointed out. “He has a background in modeling and he was exposed to that kind of thing earlier in life. He would pout his lips and he had this almost snake-like way of moving. He was doing things in that audition that creeped me out so much that I ended up adding them to the movie.”
Everything fell into place with Miller on board, and the film has been a success online with distribution on various streaming services. Still, Peckover feels a little bit of guilt about one particular bit of character development that he did not include.
“With the best friend character in Better Watch Out played by Ed Oxenbould,” he explained. “Even while I was writing it, I had in mind that he was in the closet. It was why he followed along with everything that Levi’s character does in the film. There was more there, for him, than just friendship, but I feel like it’s a copout to say that now. I feel a bit like J.K. Rowling saying of course there was a gay character in the film…I just never said it.”
Peckover never even discussed that particular character point with Oxenbould during filming, and it’s something that the regrets while admitting he’s still trying to figure out how to walk that line and make that statement.
“I kept wondering what would be my first film where I actually stare the gay identity in the face and actually say something about it,” he said. “Up until now, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to say so I’ve danced around the issue. I’m happy, now, to say that I think I’ve finally cracked it, and I’m finally developing a film where the two main characters will be gay.”
He calls the project his gay Get Out, and he says he admires what Jordan Peele was able to do with that film. He also says that the story doesn’t come from the place a lot of filmmakers are trying to place it, specifically in gay conversion therapy camps.
That’s too on the nose for Peckover, and he says that type of premise would have killed Peele’s film, as well.
“If Peele had written Get Out and had the character saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to meet your family because they’re conservatives in southern Missouri and they have pitchforks’ it would have been way to obvious,” Peckover pointed out. “Instead of putting his character in an obvious racist setting, he instead went for the heart of that wheedling, insidious type of racism who insist that they are not actually racist. That’s what is scary!”
“It’s the same thing with what I’m trying to do with this new project,” he continued. “I’m sad and angry that conversion therapy camps exist, but I’m not afraid of them. Real fear comes from that place that we know exists but we can’t quite put our finger on where it’s coming from.”
As he continues working on writing the film, he knows that, much like Get Out and other films of its ilk, there will be push-back from “horror fans.”
“People still insist Get Out wasn’t a horror movie, and I’m like yeah it is,” he said. “They say the same thing about Silence of the Lambs. They try to write them off as psychological thrillers and put distance between themselves and those movies. Good horror is still good horror and those movies are horror movies.”
That tactic, oddly enough has been used on both sides of the aisle. Non-horror fans, and especially critics it seems, want to label those films as something other than horror so they keep their supposed “credibility” while more traditional horror fans have done the same and oddly for the same reason.
For my part, I agree with Peckover, and as we finished up our conversation, I couldn’t help but ask if he’d experienced any trepidation in the possibility of being labeled a “gay filmmaker.”
“I’m gay and I’m a filmmaker, but I think the only time that label really gets thrown at you is when you make bad gay movies,” he said. “If you make something incredible, no one is going to care if you’re gay. Either way, I’m at the place in my life where I’d wear that mantle with pride.”
If you haven’t seen Better Watch Out, it’s currently available on Shudder as part of its Queer Horror collection for Pride month, and keep your eyes peeled for Chris Peckover and his future projects.