Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Netflix’s latest horror sensation doesn’t believe in itself

Andrew Bachelor, Bella Thorne, and Robbie Amell in The Babysitter: Killer Queen
Andrew Bachelor, Bella Thorne, and Robbie Amell in The Babysitter: Killer Queen
Photo: Tyler Golden/Netflix

The Babysitter: Killer Queen was the top live-action narrative film on Netflix this past weekend. The horror-comedy sequel is also, as many others have pointed out, deeply stupid. Among its crimes are references substituted for jokes, a beat-for-beat reenactment of its predecessor’s plot, and a gross-out gag involving the lead character peeing on the face of his romantic interest. There are plenty of reasons to avoid it.

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But there are lazy choices, and then there’s the fundamental incompetence of Killer Queen. The Babysitter, while not very good, was at least passably entertaining, providing a simple and unfussy setup for its sequel. Directed by McG—who, with the upcoming 20th anniversary of Charlie’s Angels, enters his third decade of helming features with the same candy-colored hyperstylization he once applied to music videos for Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, and The Offspring—the film followed one momentous night in the life of Cole (Judah Lewis), a shy pre-teen who sneaks out of his room after bedtime, the better to spy on the activities of his babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving) and the other high-schoolers she’s invited over (Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Hana Mae Lee, and Andrew Bachelor). After Bee commits a brutal murder, Cole learns the horrifying truth: She and her friends are members of a demonic cult, intent on completing a ritual that will grant them their deepest wishes. They need the blood of an innocent to finish their rite, which is where Cole comes in; the resourceful kid spends the rest of the night fending off his attackers and taking them out one by one, usually in a manner designed for maximum cartoonish gore. After fleeing to the home of his best friend Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind) and using her parents’ car to crash into Bee after burning her spell book, the film ends on a standard-issue horror stinger suggesting the malevolent sitter survived.

The Babysitter: Killer Queen
The Babysitter: Killer Queen
Photo: Tyler Golden/Netflix
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So far, so predictable, but at least it all follows comprehensible storytelling convention. Everything is established clearly: Cole’s world is basically our own, he’s a typical kid with an unachievable crush, the people around him behave more or less according to standard social norms. Then the human sacrifices start. Killer Queen sends Cole away for a weekend of fun with Melanie and some teen-sex-comedy stock types, only to be confronted with the vengeful, resurrected spirits of the antagonists he defeated in the first movie. They’re intent on completing their ritual—the sort of premise an ostensible Babysitter franchise could hash and rehash ad infinitum. These angry and power-hungry undead teenage jerks could return every couple of years to menace Cole as he goes through life, though presumably at some point their ire would transfer to a newer, younger hero, as per the demands of horror sequels.

Judah Lewis
Judah Lewis
Photo: Tyler Golden/Netflix
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But despite Killer Queen seemingly becoming popular enough to potentially merit another sequel, the film bungles its mission so spectacularly—and in such ham-fisted fashion—that it doesn’t deserve another round. Here’s the core concept this sequel fails to understand: Both horror and comedy—like every other genre of film—are based upon respecting the reality of their fictional worlds. More specifically, the horror-comedy that Killer Queen aspires to be depends upon the viewer recognizing when the movie has shifted from that world’s everyday baseline (Cole goes to school, Cole talks with his parents) into a higher gear (Cole sees Melanie slice a friend’s neck open with a large fishing hook). Whether done for laughs or scares, those baseline norms must exist in the first place. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is funny because Jim Carrey’s outrageous, flamboyantly dressed animal lover stands in contrast to a Miami police force comprised of ordinary movie cops. Rosemary’s Baby works because its young married couple moves into an unassuming apartment building—one with ominous history and architecture, but certainly not the type of place levelheaded New Yorkers would expect to encounter demons and devils. When one appears in their midst, it marks a shattering of what they (and we) understood about their reality.

Cole’s perception of everything around him was already shattered by The Babysitter; rather than working with the shards, Killer Queen pulverizes them into a fine dust. It mistakes the destruction of a narrative world for a heightening of the stakes. A common knock on the Fast And Furious movies is that a franchise that was once about street-racing small-time crooks has since elevated its heroes to the level of international covert ops agents. But every new entry in the series grounds itself in what came before: Whether Dominic Toretto is boosting consumer electronics or backing his Dodge Charger off of a cargo plane, the Fast And Furious can still fall back on Dom’s unwavering belief in “family” to hold things together. Killer Queen can’t even pull off a grounding force that simple.

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Judah Lewis and Emily Alyn Lind in The Babysitter: Killer Queen
Judah Lewis and Emily Alyn Lind in The Babysitter: Killer Queen
Photo: Tyler Golden/Netflix

Lacking conviction in the world built by the first film, it’s driven to continually disrupt its own logic with sketch-comedy setups punctuated by hacky laugh lines. Take the expository scene where Cole is recounting his travails to the school guidance counselor (Carl McDowell). After laying out the events of the first film and explaining to the counselor (and by extension, the audience) that the bodies of Bee and her friends all disappeared—ergo, no one believes him, and he’s a social outcast—the counselor jumps in. “We need to get you laid.” Thus ensues a pile-up of contradictory information that ends with the character credited as Big Dr. Carl McManus whipping out a comically large needle and announcing “Time for your flu shot!” Should a guidance counselor prescribe sexual healing when, as Cole points out, he’s also the school nurse? Well, Carl “went to Cornell, motherfucker.” Don’t question his credentials: He’s a trained psychologist, but he also sees to the physical health of the student body from 8 to 2—the same student body he’s encouraging to be sexually active while also noting he’s monitoring simultaneous outbreaks of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes at the school.

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In other words, this isn’t a plausible reality or a sturdy narrative. This is Cartoon Land, and no scene will end without a flailing, metaphorical slip on a banana peel. And if it wasn’t there in the script, it’s wedged in via clunky editing: When new girl Phoebe (You’s Jenna Ortega, one of the few bright spots of this whole mess) introduces herself to her classmates by making deliberately outlandish statements engineered to make the other kids keep their distance, the scene ends by cutting away from Phoebe and back to the teacher whose class she’s joining. “You crazy bitch,” he says, unprompted and in close-up. It highlights just how little McG trusts his audience to stick with this thing. It’s a suggestion that the filmmakers didn’t think the scene worked without a jarring, tonally unjustifiable “Oh no, he didn’t!” button.

Jenna Ortega and Judah Lewis in The Babysitter: Killer Queen
Jenna Ortega and Judah Lewis in The Babysitter: Killer Queen
Photo: Tyler Golden/Netflix
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The first Babysitter bent over backwards to avoid such farcical unreality and defensive, lazy humor. The sequel does the opposite—and, as a result, there’s no foundation to work from once the undead cult members pop up and start attacking Cole. And there’s no reality off of which Killer Queen can play its increasingly ludicrous personalities and plot beats. It grows more untethered as the film plays on: Cole’s parents (Ken Marino and Leslie Bibb, deserving better) ask him to start taking meds in order to see if they will quell his belief that he fought a demon cult, but they’re also planning to commit him to a psychiatric facility. When a cop shows up after Cole and Melanie have been reported missing, he crudely flirts with Bibb’s character, openly refuses to do his job, then chucks her on the chin like an affectionate grandparent. When two new evil-teen henchmen try to walk away from the mission, only to explode into embers without the film offering so much as a passing reason why, even the action set pieces stop making sense. “I don’t think you understand how this works, Jimmy,” one of them is told before he bursts into charcoal. That makes him equal to the viewer.

The unfortunate byproduct of all this is that it calls into question the Killer Queen jokes that could work, or the few times it legitimately says “Don’t take this so seriously.” Consider the way the script toys with time: Cole is 12 years old in The Babysitter, and a high-school junior in the sequel, which a title card tells us takes place “2 YEARS LATER.” It’s a meta joke of the Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp variety, but without any surrounding context or implication that it’s meant to be silly; in light of all the other gags that fail to land, it just plays like a counting error.

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The most damning but accurate comparison would be the dire “spoof” movies of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg: Date Movie, Disaster Movie, The Starving Games, and others that imitate the throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach of vintage Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker—minus the wit of Airplane! or the visual ingenuity of Top Secret! Killer Queen has a similar pedigree, and a likeminded commitment to believing references and crotch shots are hilarious in and of themselves. During a road trip pit stop, Cole goes to pay for snacks and is greeted by the saucy, buxom employee behind the counter, wearing what is essentially lingerie. None of the characters are nonplussed by the inexplicable nature of this “hilarious” choice. The movie is at least restrained enough not to scrawl “Isn’t that wild?! Gas station employees don’t wear that!” across the screen. Of course, maybe they’re saving that kind of gold for the third installment.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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