On one level, the “Netflix Original” flick The Babysitter (2017) seems like that proverbial “film we’ve seen before” — several times, in fact. It’s a coming-of-age-through-trial-by-fire story that’s fittingly described by cliches. On another level, but related to this one, it’s a semi-clever horror comedy. How much you’ll enjoy it depends on at what level you receive it.
Cole (Judah Lewis) is a stereotypical, wimpy, anxious, high school freshman from the ‘burbs who gets picked on by both classmates and teachers (one coach repeatedly calls him a “pussy”). He has one friend, the girl-with-a-heart-of-gold-who-lives-across-the-street, Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind). He also has neurotic, overprotective, middle-aged parents (Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino) who make him more nervous even as they try to ‘help’ him with his anxiety. They take weekend trips to local hotels to try to rejuvenate their marriage (but which make Cole worry they’re going to divorce).
Since Cole’s parents are themselves are over-anxious, especially about their only child, they hire a babysitter to stay with him while they’re gone. Enter Bee (Samara Weaving – yes, she’s Aussie Hugo Weaving’s niece). She’s babelicious and treats Cole like a buddy, so of course, he’s got a huge crush on her. But she can’t really be ‘all that’; otherwise, we’ve got no plot. There’s got to be something wrong — and yes, it involves Satan (who nevertheless fails to appear) and a multicultural group of Bee’s friends: Max (Robbie Amell), Sonya (Hana Mae Lee), Allison (Bella Thorne), and John (Andrew Bachelor).
If this scenario sounds familiar, that’s because it is. There have been numerous movies about evil/crazy and/or desirable babysitters, many of which have a similar or even the same title. A quick trip down memory lane (and a cursory glance at IMDb) reveals, in particular: The Babysitter (1995, dir. Guy Ferland), starring Alicia Silverstone; The Babysitter (1980, dir. Peter Medak), a made-for-TV production featuring Patty Duke and William Shatner (!); and the 1991 TV movie The Sitter (dir. Rick Berger). One thing these films have in common is that they’re from the last few decades of the 20th century. One could hypothesize that director McG, who made his mark first in music videos, is riffing on the movies and TV shows of these decades through a process known as pastiche.
Sure enough, McG and writer Brian Duffield drop many references from these decades (and even earlier) in American popular culture. Some citations come through dialogue. Besides the almost obligatory Friday the 13th reference, there are examples such as Cole and Bee’s competition to create a “dream team” to defeat “Big Bad,” a made-up villain. Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Predator, and Alien are a few of the films and shows from which they ‘draft’ characters. Other films and shows are cited visually. For example, McG puts his experience with music video aesthetics to good use in a set piece in which Cole and Bee act out a scene from Billy Jack (1971).
Some of these references end up becoming important plot devices; they’re there for more than just cleverness. This is not to say that this film has artistic pretensions. It’s clearly meant mainly to entertain. However, McG and Duffield did their homework when it comes to film and TV history. Although not as clever as Scream (1996) or as funny as Scary Movie (2000), The Babysitter is popcorn entertainment that will please horror-comedy fans who enjoy the occasional nod to (and sometimes a postmodern parody of) selected movies, TV, and other pop culture from the recent past.
I gave The Babysitter 3.5 out of 5 stars on Letterboxd. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.