my better watch out essay !

Men, Women, and Paint Cans: A Reading of Better Watch Out Through the Lens of Her Body, Himself

Slasher is atypical to the genres one would typically allocate to Better Watch Out: home invasion, perhaps, if you wished to belie the major twist of the movie when advertising to potential viewers, and psychological horror thereafter; the descriptor of holiday horror would not be remiss in either circumstance. However, it stands to reason that even if not a slasher in designated genre nor in general atmosphere, Better Watch Out manages to embody many of the characteristics that make slasher films an enjoyable and riveting watch. Let it be known, the only mask that the killer wears is emotional, not somatic, and there are no massive groups of scantily-clad teenagers slaughtered for general audience enjoyment.

As Carol J. Clover describes of Psycho in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, “its elements are familiar: the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman; the location is not-home at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim’s point of view and comes with shocking suddenness” (Clover 24). This, too, belies multiple of the story elements found in Better Watch Out: Ashley’s virginity is stated multiple times, a gun is used to kill, and the killer is arguably not entirely psychotic nor stemming from sick family so much as empowered by his sexual dysfunction and male entitlement. However, should we “survey the genre by component category: killer, locale, weapons, victims, and shock effects” (Clover 26), the collation of Better Watch Out as a slasher more easily comes to light.

The killer in a slasher film is arguably one of its most recognizable assets, apart from the trope and conception of the final girl, even in spite of said killers typically only showing their true selves late into said films. Luke Lerner, though remaining the same in bodily form, is not necessarily an exception to such a reading; at almost 33 minutes into its runtime, by way of pistol whipping Ashley and causing her to fall down the staircase and be rendered unconscious, Luke strips off the mask concealing his identity, revealing his true self. Luke is, like many a killer, “propelled by psychosexual fury” (Clover 27), not only motivated by a precocious passion for Ashley but also by a late-revealed and generally encompassing Oedipal attitude. A son “in the psychosexual grip of [his] mother” (Clover 49), Luke’s attachment to his mother is depicted in multiple facets throughout the film: in his usage of a womb noise machine at nearly 13 years old, in his lamenting how his mother no longer holds him tightly after tucking him in, how his attraction manifests towards another older, authoritative woman in his life. Moreover, his mother consistently dotes over him. She is the one instructing Ashley on minutiae about him, such as how he has been sleepwalking again, how she wishes for her to keep an eye on bad influence Garrett while babysitting, how he needs his sleeping pill before he goes to sleep. She dotes, and she dotes to the degree that Luke is deluded by his entitlement, deluded into thinking he’s someone much more intelligent, someone much more cunning and capable than he truly is. Luke’s attachment to his mother is even lampshaded by Garrett asking if he learned that a vagina being “sticky and moist and shit” was a pro from her.

Additionally, the Lerner family is evidently nowhere near the horror boasted by families of slasher killers, not that of Psycho nor the Chain Saw films, it stands to reason that there is still discontentment rife within the family dynamic. Luke’s parents bicker, and when he is asked by Ashley with what his family’s plans for the holidays are, Luke’s response is merely that of “Drinking and arguing”. That knowledge, combined with how Luke’s mother is drinking prior to their leaving to some unimportant holiday party, showcases how there is more than meets the eye to an otherwise stable-looking suburban family.

Clover furthermore states that, “Even killers whose childhood is not immediately at issue and who display no overt gender confusion are often sexually disturbed” (Clover 28), something that continuously resonates regarding Luke. His sexuality is relatively precocious — though not necessarily in development, as precocious sexuality is classically defined as being before the age of nine in boys, and additionally not necessarily in consumption of pornography, wherein multiple sources have stated the average age of first consumption to be 12 years old in boys — in his desire and willingness to act on said sexuality. Our first introduction to Luke is him reading an article detailing how to, in essence, turn a girl on, something appearing as supplementary detailing to a broader plan of having sex with Ashley. He not only formulates said plan, but orchestrates it in a way to manipulate her hormones to his benefit; something that, when coupled alongside the target of said plan being an older woman in a position of authority over him, speaks easily to Luke’s being sexually disturbed. Though he is seemingly upfront in his sexual wants and desires, his body belies his cunningness and confidence. When Luke gets an erection after sexually assaulting Ashley by way of groping one of her breasts, he is subsequently embarrassed by Garrett bringing attention to it; his embarrassment is juvenile given that erections are an involuntary and natural bodily response.

Moreover, Luke follows the typical depiction of a slasher killer in how his “masculinity is severely qualified” (Clover 45). Though he is coming of age himself, he is nevertheless trapped in a perpetual boyhood that fights in collusion with his dichotomous desire to be perceived as a man. He dresses himself in a manner depicting himself as well-kept, sporting a maroon jumper over a blue chequered collared shirt that contrasts with Garrett’s unkempt black hoodie. He boasts about things like sex and alcohol, perceiving those things as making him look more mature. He even brings up Ashley allegedly having cramps due to her menses as an excuse to Ricky, though this being intentioned as depicting him in a mature manner is perhaps justified when Ricky’s subsequent asking Ashley if she has tampons to quell her cramping woes comes into question. “His fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression” (Clover 42), and Luke’s entire issue with his perceived boyishness is that it is Ashley perceiving him as boyish and, ultimately, as a child. Granted, Ashley is entirely justified in doing so: not only is his meagre age of 13 the biggest contributing factor in such a viewpoint, but there are other reminders of his youth consistently shown throughout Better Watch Out. Luke’s voice cracks a fair bit throughout his night of imposed terror, a persistent reminder of the changes puberty brings onto his body. He still has colourful height indicators scrawled onto his doorframe. He still sleeps using the womb noise machine to lull him. He has an adoration for Adventure Time that is referenced not only in the home wifi network being FinnAndJake, but also in how the female princesses of the show are immediately brought up for a game of Fuck, Marry, Kill. And, most significantly of all, one of Luke’s greatest trigger areas is Ashley referring to him as a child.

Though we see Ashley in the beginning of the film driving to the Lerner residence, it is Luke, sporting his civilian mask, that is posited as our protagonist. “We are linked [...] with the killer in the early part of the film [...] before we have come to know the Final Girl in any detail” (Clover 44), and we are giving a heaping pile of details regarding Luke in the form of his introductory scene. Even his bedroom serves to contextualise his boyishness; there are G.I. Joe action figure dolls and toy cars lining his shelves, there are posters about video games and zombies embellishing his walls, an abandoned puzzle beneath his bed. The intimate look into his bedroom shares with the audience the exact type of person that Luke purports to be, or, perhaps, the person Luke was before his familial issues took hold.

Ashley’s womanhood in general seems to elicit a fair amount of rage from Luke, especially where it pertains to her sexuality. He is relatively obsessed with the idea of Ashley having sex, and not even necessarily with him. In almost every circumstance, the detailing of his obsession isn’t even solely about himself. When Luke puerilely elects to play truth or dare with Garrett and a duct tape-restrained Ashley, the first truth he offers Ashley to answer is how many guys she has slept with. This is a question that Luke already perceives himself as knows the answer to, granted that he immediately rebuts Ashley’s answer of “None” with the apparent knowledge that she had “screwed Jeremy”. He further presses the issue of Ashley’s sexuality once he restrained Ricky in a manner similar to Ashley, declaring that he wanted to watch them fuck to pass the time before Jeremy arrived. Additionally, Luke seems dissatisfied with Ashley’s answer, as he gets a second opinion on the area of her virginity from Ricky, stating his belief that they have sex twice a day withal.

This apparent proclivity towards penetrative sex where Ashley is involved falls apart where Luke is directly involved. Luke’s groping of Ashley, as horrific as it is, is as far as his sexual misconduct gets. When Clover states, “Actual rape is practically nonexistent in the slasher film [...] violence and sex are not concomitants but alternatives, the one as much a substitute for and a prelude to the other” (Clover 29), Luke using violence as a sexual proxy and substitute is wildly apparent. There are minimum two instances where Ashley is unconscious and Luke could hypothetically rape her should that be something he sought in actuality — both when she is rendered unconscious after being pistol whipped and falling down the stairs, and when she is rendered unconscious after being hit with the brick — but he, as far as we the audience are aware, doesn’t. However, Luke does have the roofies that he refers to as his insurance policy, and granted that it is something he would have to obtain separately, apart from his manufactured plan of the night, it’s difficult to ascertain whether raping Ashley was necessarily a plan for him or not. That being said, Luke is also depicted to be incredibly possessive over Ashley, to the point where he shoots and kills Garrett for touching her and attempting to free her. It is thereby possible that Luke did not want to rape Ashley while she was unconscious due to Garrett being over, not wanting to share what he viewed as his possession and his conquest.

The locale of Better Watch Out is analogous to the “Terrible Place” outlined by Clover (30), wherein she further elucidates how “the house or tunnel may at first seem a safe haven, but the same walls that promise to keep the killer out quickly become, once the killer penetrates them, the walls that hold the victim in” (31). The Lerner residence of 312 Claremont Lane is absolutely a safe haven, even in how Luke describes his family as living in a “really safe neighbourhood”. Ashley has babysat for them before, and it is therefore a familiar location. However, once Luke’s sex scheme is foiled and the mask slips from his face, the Lerner residence seamlessly transitions into the “Terrible Place” (Clover 30), holding Ashley in thanks mostly to the duct tape that binds her.

Clover states that “in the hands of the killer, at least, guns have no place in slasher films” (Clover 31). This in tandem with the slasher comparisons appears to fall apart given that Luke kills Garrett with the shotgun, but Garrett was most likely not intended as one of Luke’s victims. Luke’s other successful kills make use of household amenities — paint can, rope, riding lawn mower — and indicate at least some degree of premeditation, while Garrett’s death comes because of Luke’s abrupt, impulsive, and possessive rage. Garrett’s death is ultimately an afterthought and not otherwise indicative of his planned rampage. Clover further explains how “victims sometimes avail themselves of firearms, but [...] guns fail in a pinch” (31), which resonates with Ashley’s attempted usage of the pistol. After Ricky is killed, she attempts to fire up towards the ceiling, and it fails her due to being unloaded. The majority of the weapons and manners of killing used by Luke throughout the film hearken to the slasher’s pre-technological emotional terrain.

Perhaps the greatest contrast from the typical slasher that Better Watch Out delineates is the lack of female victims; as aforementioned, there are no scantily-clad teenagers killed. Ashley serves as a dual image of victim and of final girl. Her death is, for all intents and purposes, a death. Until it isn’t. The male victims of Better Watch Out follow the outline of a slasher more closely. Clover states how “the death of a male is nearly always swift” (35), which rings true for all three deaths. Ricky is seldom granted the opportunity to properly parse and comprehend his peril thanks firstly due to the blindfold and secondly due to the immediacy of his death; the paint bucket successfully swings into his head, and blood begins a cascading outpour, contrasting the vibrant yellow paint. Jeremy is given no time at all to comprehend his peril, as Luke wraps the noose around his neck and hangs him via the riding lawnmower before he can do anything more than feebly struggle against the rope. Garrett’s death is the most drawn out, and even he dies under twenty seconds after comprehending his peril, having outright stated that he is dying. Clover additionally details how “would-be rescuers are not infrequently blown away for their efforts, leaving the girl to fight her own fight” (43), which is precisely what happens to Garrett as he is blown across the room by the blast of the shotgun. He is quite literally killed for his efforts of trying to save Ashley, cemented by Luke screaming how “[he] told [Garrett] not to touch her” and asking “why did [he] make [him] do it”.

What comes as a complete contrast to all three prior is Ashley’s discernible death. “Prolonged struggles, in which the victim has time to contemplate her imminent destruction, inevitably figure females” (Clover 47). Ashley not only contemplates her imminent destruction, but outright declares it, asking Luke for affirmation on him never actually planning to let her go. After being tormented for over half the film in a sick game of cat and mouse with Luke, with the violence against her being drawn out and glorified as she spends nearly an hour of the film being taunted and assaulted by him, she finally meets what we believe to be her end. Naturally, it is in both the most intimate manner of all as well the most sexually charged: she is stabbed by Luke, from behind, with a knife. The knife, of course, serves in horror theory as a stand in for the phallus; this is to say that his killing of Ashley is the penetration, the copulation, the rape of her that Luke sought all along. Much as Pauline of Perils fame was described, Ashley “is at her very most effective in a state of undress, borne down upon by a phallic murderer, even gurgling orgasmically as she dies” (Clover 42). After all, she has been stripped not only by her own hand, by presumably Luke’s and Garrett’s as well, given that the last time she is shown before the film’s big twist, she is wearing her blue tee shirt, and she is wearing a grey tank top afterwards. Even the orgasmically gurgling serves to resonate, wherein she first gives a sharp whine outwards before letting out said orgasmic gurgling; bearing in mind the ideation that Ashley’s stabbing is analogous to sex, consensual or otherwise, the reaction that the both of them have is likewise akin to orgasm. Ashley gasps and moans, while Luke’s breathing quickens immensely and his eyes roll backwards: they are climaxing because of his penetration. Moreover, the duct tape she uses to save her life would serve as a sort of anti-rape device, penetrating her wound just as Luke had her, inserted into herself; contrary to the penetration that would destroy her, this penetration serves as her savior.

Another component of not only the three actualized deaths of the film, but also Ashley’s apparent death, is how the victims are punished for their sexual transgressions. Men and women in horror are both killed for their sexual transgressions, albeit it in varying manners. For instance, when men are killed, the manner in which they die does not serve to remind them of said transgressions: there is no phallic imagery to be found in a paint can, nor hanging, nor even in the blast of a shotgun. The closest we get is Luke stabbing into Ricky’s cheek with the pencil that was hidden beneath the rug, but even that injury, while perhaps hearkening to Luke’s belief that Ricky has had sex with Ashley, is ultimately nonfatal, thereby not serving as a reminder of sexual transgression in death. Though it can be stated that all three men are punished for their sexual transgressions — Jeremy for starting a rumour that he had sex with ashley, Ricky for having such availability with Ashley even if they aren’t sexually active, and Garrett for kissing and touching her — there is no reminder of their crimes when they are slaughtered mercilessly by Luke. Ashley’s killing is, as stated, intimate and sexually charged, serving to remind her of the greatest transgression of all: not being sexually available to Luke. Such is why she gets Luke up close and personal to presumably end her life, while all three other kills happen from a distance. Additionally, while both Ashley’s death and Jeremy’s death both happen onscreen, Jeremy’s death is notably void of any gore; his reaction is similarly not intended to be erotic but emasculating as he helplessly chokes and struggles for air. We, in contrast, watch as the knife is shoved into Ashley, as she whimpers out, as Garrett’s blood is still splattered onto her bared skin.

The final girl is “the image of the one who did not die” (Clover 35). The final image of Ashley is her giving Luke the middle finger whilst being wheeled into the stretcher; the exclamation that “This one’s still alive!” comes as cathartic release for the audience as a showcase of Ashley’s feminine triumph. She is “chased, cornered, wounded” (Clover 35), subjected agonisingly to Luke’s malicious schemes. While the men of the film are aware of their death only mere seconds before it occurs, just as Clover suggests, Ashley antithetically harbours an awareness of her impending peril; she “lives with the knowledge for long minutes” (Clover 35) and even goes on to act accordingly with it in mind. Furthermore, Clover states the final girl as “alone look[ing] death in the face” (, which Ashley does with her consistent and blatant rebellion against him. Despite Luke pointing what she believes to be a loaded gun at her, she refuses to bend to his whims, even going so far as to refuse to involve anyone else in his schemes when the anyone else in question is Jeremy, someone she has a comprehensively detailed dislike for. She also knocks into the alcohol bottle with the roofies in it, causing it to break and shatter on the floor when Luke drops it, and, similarly, she lures Luke in with false pretences of submission before quite literally kicking him in the balls, akin to what Garrett threatened Luke with earlier.

Though she does not look death in the face in the most literal sense, given her refusal to look at Luke before her quote-unquote death, that same action instead looks death in the face in a figurative sense; she refuses to submit to his order, accepting and even embracing that she will die rather than give him what he wants. Ultimately, the final girl “finds the strength [...] to stay the killer long enough to be rescued” (Clover 35), showcased in how Ashley plugs her wound with duct tape to stop her bleeding and thereby save herself such that she can be rescued. Final girls are also described as “show[ing] more courage and levelheadedness than their cringing male counterparts” (Clover 36): while Ashley showcases courage in all faces of adversity, Garrett is contrarily the spitting image of cowardice until only seconds before his death; Ricky is not only humiliated by urinating himself while bound in place, but also how he pathetically begs and pleads for his life; Jeremy is fuelled so much by his emotionally-driven desire to see Ashley and reconnect with her that he bends to Luke’s whims, even without good reason to do so.

There are three primary characteristics of the final girl, as described by Clover: virginal, observant, and resourceful. These characteristics fit Ashley to a T, being some of her most palpable and defining characteristics. Ashley’s virginity is outright stated no less than twice, and she is not only not sexually active, but not sexually available, either; she rejects Luke, and it is all but confirmed that Ashley intended to break up with Ricky for her big move, as well, further separating herself from male attention. Ashley’s watchfulness is not something that can be understated, either. Her paying attention to the framed photos of the Lerner residence helps her to realise the scheme that Luke and Garrett blindly led her into by way of her calling out Garrett wearing Luke’s ski mask. Ashley is consistently attuned to her physical environment, always cognizant of her surroundings. Fascinatingly, such is a glaring dissimilarity to her behaviour in the beginning of the film, wherein she almost hits a cat on the road due to her distracted driving. To round out the triad of traits, Ashley’s resourcefulness is by far her most defining characteristic of all. She is resourceful in how she takes notice of a flashlight on the counter and uses it to attempt a flashing rescue signal out of the window. She is resourceful in how she notices a stray shard of glass from her broken bottle endeavour that she uses to successfully free herself from her duct tape constraints. She is resourceful in how she pits Garrett and Luke against one another by bringing up how Luke killed Garrett’s hamster. And, perhaps most triumphantly of all, she is resourceful in how she uses duct tape to stop the bleeding in her stab wound, turning Luke’s claim of “1001 uses for duct tape” against him.

Our closeness to Luke wanes as our closeness to Ashley waxes; more and more, while Luke plummets and descends into inhumane malice and vitriol, Ashley is instead continuously humanised. She possesses a strong moral compass, acting as a direct foil to Luke’s depravity, both in declarations of protection against the innocent and the vulnerable and in her direct protective actions. She immediately attempts to bargain with Luke to have Ricky released. She valiantly refuses to directly involve Jeremy in Luke’s scheme, even with a gun held to her, even when Jeremy has shown a consistent slew of poor behaviour throughout his short time and impact on the film. And, even after all of Garrett’s compliance with Luke’s schemes that directly harmed Ashley, she plainly states that Luke will not hurt Garrett because she will not allow it. Even though Garrett has been a nuisance at best and a willing participant in Ashley’s assault and debasement, she sacrificially takes the burden upon herself in swearing to protect him against Luke.

The audience’s empathy capacity for Luke similarly wanes as his true self is revealed and he tears the mask away from his own face: he has lived a life of consistent privilege, with nothing to threaten him getting his way. A letter shown in the film states that the Lerners live in Winnetka, Illinois, which is one of the wealthiest places in the United States when ranked by household income. He has a room full of trophies, accomplishments, and other things to occupy his attention and his greed. There are no fewer than eight trophies displayed on the shelf in his room, coupled alongside a smattering of certificates for all his various proficiencies. Awarding academic excellence, science fair, chess championship, certificate of achievement; all a testament not only to the person he portrayed himself as, but also to his never-ending lust for praise, attention, and success. He has an extremely large television in his room with a gaming console, a guitar, multitudes of books and DVDs, board games upon board games upon board games, and he states at one point that he knows tae-kwon-do: Luke is extremely privileged in all that he does, and this has aided in the violent culmination of all his entitlement.

Ashley, incongruously, is depicted as disprivileged throughout the film’s span. She has been subjected to social ire thanks to the rumour Jeremy has spread. Nearly every man in the movie is predatory or otherwise creepy to her in some capacity. Luke’s father flirts with her and compliments her much more than necessary. The pizza deliveryman waits until Luke has disappeared deeper into the home to wish Ashley a pleasant night. Jeremy violates Ashley’s privacy by spreading the sex rumour about him. Garrett both goes along with Luke’s scheme, at least initially, for the prospect of getting some sexual action from Ashley, and kisses her on the cheek while she has been restrained with duct tape and Christmas lights. Luke is the crown prince of leveraging Ashley’s disprivilege against her. There is the looming threat of rape and sexual violence, especially with the introduction of roofies into the mix. There is the actualized sexual violence by way of his nonconsensual groping of her breast, while she is both pleading for him not to and while she is restrained and therefore unable to stop him and revoke her consent by way of physical refusal. There is the attempted kissing at the beginning of the film, where he clings onto her and continues his unwanted attempt even while she repeatedly says no, and there are the subsequent forehead kisses in the first kiss’s wake; one after he gropes her during truth or dare, and one after he stabs her. Both kisses she cannot fight off come, like gentle affection, after sexual violence, be it allegorical or blatant.

More specifics of the final girl are described as being “intelligent, watchful, levelheaded; the first character to sense something amiss and the only one to deduce from the accumulating evidence the pattern and extent of the threat” (Clover 44). Ashley is immediately reactive to all of Luke’s and Garrett’s manufactured scheme, perhaps to an even greater extent than either of the boys anticipated. She arms herself with a knife and acts protectively over the boys; fascinatingly, the only time where Ashley wields the phallus is when the true killer is not apparent, and thus when she cannot adequately comprehend her peril. As it stands, Luke sought a screaming, vulnerable victim — the sort of victim that screamed for him to kill spiders and whom behaved neurotically at the sighting of even the most banal of horror movies — and instead served as the catalyst for Ashley’s phoenix-esque rebirth into the final girl.

Just as Luke, being the slasher killer, has his masculinity compromised by the onset of femininity by way of boyishness, Ashley, being the final girl, has her femininity compromised by being forcibly masculinized to survive the situation she has been imposed into. Ashley at the beginning of the film is nowhere near as boyish as the prototypical final girl would indicate; she is neither girl scout, nor bookworm, nor mechanic. What she does carry the torch with in terms of outward final girl imagery, however, is her name: Ashley, while not necessarily a male name for the Americentrist viewpoint that the film depicts (despite its majority Australian cast and setting), is often shortened to Ash by the characters surrounding her in Better Watch Out, which does bear a stronger male connotation and thereby masculinising Ashley more to that of her fellow final girls. But Ashley as prototypical hysterical victim is feminine. Her hair is styled, she sports white and blue clothing that boasts symbolism of innocence, of purity, of femininity, she screams in terror about a spider and grabs Luke’s hand during the horror movie as a physical sanctuary against her trepidation. Ashley as prototypical final girl, contrarily, has turned masculine. She becomes increasingly angrier and more physically dishevelled as the film goes on, with her hair becoming messier and with tears, messy makeup, and blood smeared all over her face. She, having been undressed by Luke and Garrett, no longer sports innocent blues and whites, but instead an androgynous grey; grey, which is viewed as too weak to be masculine but too menacing to be feminine” (Heller). She has turned masculine to survive the events of the film: she has become angry, being granted the same righteous and heavenly anger that Luke perceives himself as having.

Ashley’s triumph over Luke couples neatly with more of Clover’s description of The Body, stating “it is the male killer's tragedy that his incipient femininity is not reversed but completed (castration) and the final girl's victory that her incipient masculinity is not thwarted but realised (phallicisation)” (50). It is in this way that Luke’s feminisation and overarching boyishness is his undoing, while Ashley is empowered by her ascension to masculinity. In the final moments before Ashley’s supposed death, beginning with a kick in the balls that for all intents and purposes serves as being analogous to castration, Luke recounts the apparent root to his motherly issues, lamenting that he doesn’t know why his mother stopped holding him as she used to. Boldly, Ashley states that she knows why before completely shutting down. Unspeaking, eyes closed, absolutely no willingness to engage in any capacity. She weaponises stoicism, silence, and dominance like a man. This entirely sets Luke off as he begins begging and pleading for attention. Any attention: for her to open her eyes, for her to say something, for her to answer the question, for her to look at him, for her to tell him he’s fucked up, for her to tell him she’s disappointed, for her to say that she’s scared or that she wants to go home, for her to say something. He is feminised thanks to his emotional outburst in search of attention, and he attempts to reinforce her feminine by way of returning to calling her the more feminine Ashley, rather than the masculine Ash nickname he had otherwise opted towards for much of the film’s duration. Luke’s castration has been completely thanks to his emasculating feminine outburst, while Ashley’s phallicisation has been completed by way of her plugging up the vulvic of her stab wound, shedding her femininity and making the fullest descent into the final girl’s androgyny to survive.

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