In the derivative but appealing family horror comedy A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, a timorous high school freshman races against time to rescue her five-year-old charge from the Boogeyman on Halloween night. A sloshy swill fermented in the hacked-up viscera of superior fantasy features — including Labyrinth, Hocus Pocus, Monster’s Inc., Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Adventures in Babysitting — the film often sinks beneath the weight of its viscous plot. However, it burbles and thrives in moments that rely on aesthetics over story, director Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl) infusing genuine creepy tension with an à la mode witchy/techy visual motif.
We open on guttural growls, charcoal storm clouds and a single lit window inside an otherwise dimmed Rhode Island house. On the top floor, a kindergartener cows under the covers in her dark room, spying the closet door as rain pummels the glass outside. Creeks, thunderclaps, an oscillating rocking chair. When little Kelly’s toy T-Rex flushes to life and roars with bared incisors, I nearly yelped. Smoke immediately billows from the closet doorway while withered, gelatinous fingers peak through. The moment is child-friendly freakiness at its finest.
Baby scream queen Tamara Smart (The Worst Witch, Are You Afraid of the Dark?) stars as teenage Kelly Ferguson, a mousy math whizz who’s been bullied since elementary school due to this aforementioned traumatic event, which none of her peers believes happened. (“Now I’m just scared of real-life stuff,” she feigns. “Like climate change, and inequality, and talking to boys, and like everything I read on Twitter.”) Hounded with the epithet “Monster Girl,” Kelly keeps her nose to her books, moons after a cute boy and looks forward to attending a senior’s costume Halloween party. But her mom soon ambushes her with babysitting duties at a colleague’s house and Kelly trundles off to watch anxious nugget Jacob (Ian Ho, A Simple Favor) and mollify his termagant mother.
Soon, poor insomniac Jacob disappears from his bed, snatched by doofy little CGI monsters at the behest of the Grand Guignol (Harry Potter‘s Tom Felton, campy, unrecognizable and having the time of his life). This oozy-woozy boogeyman, one of many in the Babysitter’s Guide universe, plans to siphon Jacob’s hidden power to corporealize dreams and nightmares. Trapped in the fiend’s hellish realm, Jacob comically resists all attempts to beguile him with song, such as trying to convince the increasingly agitated Grand Guignol to supply him with energy drinks and espresso beans to help put him to sleep. Ho and Felton have grand fun here, the senior scene partner channeling every ballistic parent losing the bedtime battle with their spawn. (You can practically imagine him thinking, “This little bitch…!”)
Kelly is frantic over the supernatural abduction. (How pure to think a missing child would lead to being “grounded” and not prosecuted by the state.) Luckily for her, a gruff, pink-haired punk soon shows up at the house on a motorbike, clad in a Baby Bjorn. Liz Lerue (Oona Laurence) is a jaded teen who belongs to an ancient, magical order of babysitters… and has zero time for Kelly’s simpiness. She whisks the girl off to follow the kidnappers and soon introduces her to her very own Scooby gang secretly housed at an underground lab at Brown University. These sprightly teens, somewhere between witches and scientists, follow an archaic grimoire that instructs them in all things weird and ghoulish that could endanger vulnerable children in their care. And handily, it’s been digitized for e-readers!
This is where A Babysitter’s Guide began to lose me. The further it sank into byzantine mythos, the itchier I felt. Screenwriter Joe Ballarini, adapting his own middle-grade novel of the same name, becomes snarled in a web of genre pastiche while scavenging mystical tropes, plot turns and characterizations you’ve encountered your whole life. (Chatty, grotesque Grand Guignol is a less stylish Beetlejuice and his slapstick Toady monsters are little more than Minions copycats. Even a minor character reflexively sexually harasses Kelly upon meeting her, as if he were Ghostbusters‘ Peter Venkman.)
However, when the girls show up at the high school party Kelly was supposed to attend that night, Liz has a refreshing wake-up call for her new companion. “He’s just a dude,” she comments, incredulous at Kelly’s anxiety seeing her crush from afar. “I mean, you’re more scared of some mean girl and some dude than a monster?” At that moment, I heartily wanted Liz to be Kelly’s real love interest.
Laurence is a delight, imbuing Liz with gritty and jaundiced verve, especially while an infant named Carmella is strapped to her back. She’s a Byronic hero for 2020. Smart has the more challenging role as a diffident kid learning to trust herself after a decade of gaslighting and torment. I’ll admit I gravitate more toward clever aggressors than shivering waifs (there’s a reason my holy triumvirate of teen movies are Clueless, Mean Girls and Booksmart). But Smart, buoyed by Talalay’s gonzo spirit, renders Kelly a capable heroine. By the end, she’s keen to join this cabal of vampire slayers — er, I mean monster hunters.
At times, gummy CGI seems to overtake the screen. I wish Talalay had chosen to (or perhaps been allowed to) rely on practical effects and prosthetics, which make for a more gruesome, intimate and memorable horror viewing experience than animated graphics can typically provide. I don’t remember much from the director’s feminist cyberpunk cult classic Tank Girl, but creature artist Stan Winston’s utterly wild kangaroo-snouted humanoid chimeras are always the first thing that comes to mind. Still, Babysitter’s Guide may just end up a childhood classic for Generation Alpha, its moody frights equipped to imprint on eager little brains.
Cast: Tamara Smart, Oona Laurence, Tom Felton, Ian Ho, Indya Moore
Director: Rachel Talalay
Premieres: October 15th (Netflix)