Written by: Simon Barrett
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: Sharni Vinson, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, and Barbara Crampton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Grab anything you can use as a weapon."
With horror having become increasingly sentient during the past decade and a half, it’d be easy to assume that You’re Next aims to gut the home invasion thriller and turn it inside-out. While it doesn’t come without a modicum of self-awareness and a sense of pitch-black humor that occasionally needles the genre, Adam Wingard’s latest is more interested in just sort of poking at it and acknowledging the familiarity. Then it proceeds to be one of the best damn variations on that familiar theme in ages; even if one isn’t accustomed to the talent involved, it’s obvious that this a home invasion movie being put on by a bunch of guys (and gals) who’ve seen ‘em all and decided to one-up them with a clever script that hits all of the requisite beats and grace notes in bloody, entertaining fashion.
On the eve of their 35th anniversary, Paul and Aubrey Davison (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton) have invited their four children to their spacious home to celebrate. As the brood gathers, the brothers especially can’t help but bicker with each other—Drake (Joe Swanberg) takes shots at Crispian’s (A.J. Bowen) weight his choice to date one of his students (Sharni Vension). Before familial tensions can fully explode over dinner, unseen assailants begin to lob crossbows into the kitchen, with one landing right between the eyes of the Davison daughter’s (Amy Seimetz) boyfriend. The pack of masked men then make their way inside to pick off the family one by one, only to find themselves soon fighting for their own lives.
You’re Next operates in a curious place—it’s definitely not a spoof or satire of horror flicks, but it’s inarguably self-conscious (any film that features indie folk heroes Swanberg and Ti West discussing the merits of commercial filmmaking and underground film festivals is up to something). But rather than announce that awareness with mugging winks and name-dropping (this isn’t Scream—no one’s referencing The Strangers or the film’s most direct ancestor, Bava’s Bay of Blood), it slyly recognizes certain clichés and puts them at the service of the story—of course there’s no cell phone reception because the bad guys are actively jamming them. At one point, it’s suggested that everyone move down to the basement before one of the sharper characters points out that the psychos could just torch the joint and trap them inside, an observation that serves to set up how the film eventually flips the home invasion script.
See, as familiar as You’re Next is, it doesn’t come without one awesome wrinkle in Vinson’s Erin. Typical home invasion films will eventually coax its white-bread, pacifist protagonists to violence, but this one awakens a beast. Once the Animals begin to siege the house, Erin’s self-preservation kicks in like muscle memory while the entitled Davison clan cowers in their foyer; not content to simply survive the night, she decides to actively rig the place full of booby traps and arms herself. Vinson is great in the role, and both she and Simon Barrett’s script stir up an incredible, souped-up take on the Final Girl; here’s a survivor who isn’t waiting to earn the title once everyone else is whittled down, but the film wisely keeps her from becoming an invincible badass. Instead, it puts her through blood spattered hell and never allows audiences to forget how vulnerable she is.
It’s this character that bests represents just what You’re Next is up to because it resists the temptation to plunge all the way into cutesy genre subversion that flips the victim/stalker dynamic. The film doesn’t degenerate into a reversed stalk and slash but rather becomes a black comedy of errors out of the Agatha Christie mold (it’s no coincidence that there are ten targets here). Once the bloodletting begins in earnest, it does so in a back and forth manner that breathlessly twists and turns while piling up an impressive body count. As a slasher, it’s damn near relentless (there’s even an obligatory prologue that announces all of the staples: sex, rock and roll, and death) and revels in old-school crowd-pleasing violence out of the 80s mold, only it asks audiences to more naturally side with the good guys. Where Friday the 13th and its ilk offered contemporary teens the opportunity to see their idiotic avatars carved up on screen, You’re Next makes mincemeat out of its daft antagonists. Save for an early jaw-dropping send-up of Dumb Slasher Movie Decisions, the film reserves its most impressive displays of carnage for Erin’s own rampage through this bumbling horde.
There’s a moment early on that clues you in that You’re Next definitely isn’t interested in going the enigmatic, inexplicable evil route when Erin unmasks a would-be killer after pummeling his skull into a pulp. It turns out that he’s just some chump, and his co-conspirators often reveal themselves to be just as oafish. You’re Next has a lot of fun with its shifting perceptions, expectations, and wit; for all its savage violence, the film is slyly droll and teeters right on the edge of absurdity. At its heart, the film is a dark, Bava-esque goof—it’s Bay of Blood by way of an aesthetic that blends Carpenter’s polished camerawork (mostly—there’s some over-caffeinated lensing early on that thankfully subsides) and synth-laden scores. Again, Wingard and company don’t go for huge laughs along the way, and some of the humor is so dry that it could be mistaken as unintentional, but make no mistake: You’re Next is in on its own joke, and the punchline is that there really is no punchline because it only highlights the horrible things people will do to each other for money, and the characters’ deadpan reactions in the face of this slaughter reveal black souls that truly speak to the banality of evil.
With You’re Next, Wingard has solidified himself as a preeminent genre talent who seems to put this stuff together with ease. Some sequences here (such as one confined to the aforementioned off-limits basement) serve as a master class of suspense bred by shot-selection and editing, and they add up to a film that just feels like that rare splatter movie that actually bothers to do just about everything right: it presents actual characters that you care about, it cleverly unlocks like a puzzle box, and it escalates with a pulsating energy (Wingard especially knows the value of reserving the most satisfying, over-the-top death sequence for the one character who truly deserves it).
In many ways, it feels like a victory lap for the “mumblegore” scene that’s been mostly confined to home video during the past few years, and this troupe doesn’t disappoint when given their opportunity on a bigger stage. Swanberg and Bowen are especially impressive in sketching a lived-in relationship that extends beyond the brief moments we have with them before all hell breaks loose. The film also returns Crampton back to her rightful place in the limelight and smartly refuses to let her serve as mere fan-service casting by allowing her to function as the terrified matriarch who makes the terror palatable when it arrives on her doorstep.
By now, horror fans are well-versed in the story behind You’re Next: after it blew the roof off of Toronto and Austin back in 2011, Lionsgate quickly acquired the film and let it collect dust for months. While frustrating, the delay now seems fortuitous and appropriate in the wake of 2012, a year lined with efforts like The Cabin in the Woods and Detention that aimed to blow up and deconstruct the genre in a big, bold way. On the other hand, 2013 has been lined with exercises in pure homage in the form of Hitchcock riffs, Euro-horror revivals, and refurbished haunted houses. Joining them is You’re Next, another film that serves a reminder that what’s old can always feel new again as long as someone bothers to inject a little bit of fresh blood before splattering it all over the place. Buy it!
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