Director : Adam Wingard
Screenplay : Simon Barrett
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Sharni Vinson (Erin), Nicholas Tucci (Felix), Wendy Glenn (Zee), AJ Bowen (Crispian), Joe Swanberg (Drake), Margaret Laney (Kelly), Amy Seimetz (Aimee), Ti West (Tariq), Rob Moran (Paul), Barbara Crampton (Aubrey), L.C. Holt (Lamb Mask), Simon Barrett (Tiger Mask), Lane Hughes (Fox Mask)
One would be justified in wondering why You’re Next, a smart, gory, and often darkly comical variant on the home invasion horror-thriller, has been sitting on a shelf for nearly two years, inexplicably undistributed since it screened in a handful of festivals in 2011, including Toronto. Written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, who previously collaborated on the serial killer drama A Horrible Way to Die (2010) and a segment of the omnibus film V/H/S (2012), among others, You’re Next doesn’t quite live up to the best entries in the genre, including Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) and Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008). However, what it lacks in the former’s intellectual rigor and the latter’s visual ruthlessness it makes up for with a knowingly off-kilter tone and sly sense of character.
With the exception of a gruesome prologue in which a crude older man and his college-age girlfriend meet their gruesome demise at the receiving end of blades wielded by unseen hands, the entirety of the film takes place in and around an enormous, isolated Tudor-style mansion set deep in the woods that serves as both a vacation house and an endless fixer-upper project for a recently wealthy and now retired couple, Paul and Aubrey (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton), who are about to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. To celebrate, they have invited all of their adult children and their spouses/significant others for a weekend getaway. This is the first time the entire family has been reunited under one roof, and as soon as they are you can see why it has been so long. The tensions are immediately apparent, especially between smug, alpha oldest brother Drake (Joe Swanberg) and insecure middle brother Crispian (AJ Bowen), who arrives with his former teaching assistant and now girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson). The other siblings, younger brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz) are complete opposites in terms of temperament, as Felix is moody and removed while Aimee is animated and boisterous. Felix’s girlfriend, Zee (Wendy Glenn), is about as dark and glum as he is, while Aimee’s boyfriend Tariq (Ti West) is a pretentious would-be indie filmmaker.
The family’s barely buried tensions erupt almost immediately as soon as they are all seated around the dinner table, although their petty squabbling is just as quickly interrupted by the intrusion of crossbow arrows crashing through the dining room windows. Therein begins an assault on the house by an unknown number of assailants wearing creepy-weird animal masks and bearing an assortment of blunt and bladed instruments with which they clearly intend to kill everyone in the house. While both Funny Games and The Strangers used a similar scenario to explore the unmitigated depths of faceless human evil, in which the villains enact violence simply because they can, there is good reason in You’re Next why this particular family is being targeted. The reason is not revealed until fairly deep into the story, although not so deep that it doesn’t offer a hinge-point for the narrative to shift gears fairly dramatically.
The generally even nature of how the different family members are depicted in terms of narrative emphasis and screen time means that it is not clear at first who has the best chance of survival; in other words, any one could potentially die at any given minute, which gives the film a vicious thrill that many horror movies, with their all-too-telegraphed victims, lack. Not surprisingly, Barrett and Wingard ultimately wind their way toward the idea of the slasher-movie “Final Girl” and run with it, albeit in consistently interesting ways. What we end up with is a resilient heroine who doesn’t just survive where others die, but proactively fights for that survival in ways that make Nancy’s homemade booby traps in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) seem like kid’s play.
The violence in You’re Next is intensely bloody and often arrives with shocking suddenness (piano wire makes a particularly unexpected appearance), but the tone that Wingard strikes falls somewhere between Hammer-style gallows humor and outright genre subversiveness. The movie is constantly reminding us of its status as such through the self-conscious casting of fan-familiar faces (Barbara Crampton, most infamous for her role in 1985’s cult favorite Re-Animator and horror director Ti West as a pompous filmmaker) and the musical score by Mads Heldtberg, Jasper Justice Lee, and Kyle McKinnon, which runs the gamut of creepy orchestrations to synth beats that are decidedly John Carpenter-esque. There are times when you start to feel like the whole movie is just an elaborate joke on itself, but then it works so well that you get sucked into the tension and forget that you were laughing only a few minutes ago. Not all of it works, especially once the masked assailants are revealed and their all-too-human motivations are laid bare. However, the film maintains more than enough suspense and provides plenty of goosey jumps to offset any narrative disappointments, plus it ends with what is perhaps the funniest, sickest, most unexpectedly raucous final shot of any horror movie I can think of in recent years. It’s one I should have seen coming from a mile away, but didn’t, which makes it all the more memorable.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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