The buzz was true. “You’re Next” has been talked about with great enthusiasm since its midnight showing at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2011 (http://bit.ly/17FRKYw). And the plaudits are entirely deserved. It just opened nationwide August 23 and is easily one of the best horror films to come down the pike in the past few years. It’s not only scary, but it’s incredibly thought provoking as well - a gem of the genre with excellence at every corner of it.
Most horror films really only have one obligation and that is to frighten its audience. But too many horror films think that excessive violence and gore is the best route to do so. There’s a difference though between covering your eyes and sitting on the edge of your seat. “You’re Next” is of the latter variety. It’s a thrilling piece of work that not only had me nervous the entire time but had me smiling too. Smiling, because it's all done so well. A big round of applause should go to director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett for proving once again that they’re the genuine articles when it comes to making terrific horror movies. And this is their best work yet.
“You’re Next” starts with a fairly hoary premise though, one that’s been exploited dozens of time on screen before - the family house under siege by maniacal marauders outside. It’s driven the plot of everything from the terrific “The Strangers” in 2008 to this year’s not so good “The Purge” (http://exm.nr/11zjSeI). And here it is the catalyst as well. This time the house is a big sprawling mansion out in the middle of the woods where a family gathers to celebrate the parents' wedding anniversary. Dad (Rob Moran) is a rich and retired defense contractor and Mom (Barbara Crampton) is an elegant beauty. Their grown children coming home (A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Nicholas Tucci and Amy Seitmetz) each return with a significant other and plenty of baggage in tow as well, the psychological kind that is. Seething resentment courses just under the family niceties and will soon reach its zenith when three masked villains make their move and attack the house.
The most interesting of the tagalong guests is Sharni Vinson as Erin, the girlfriend and former student of college professor Crispian (Bowen). She’s from Australia and has a self-awareness and confidence that all the other young people lack. It's a good thing too as that level-headedness will serve her well once all hell breaks loose. Erin will focus on fighting the forces outside while the others are still fighting amongst themselves.
That’s a great dynamic in this movie and it gives it psychological underpinnings that few entries in the genre have. The family back-story helps us understand who these dozen people are and it helps us invest in their outcome. In fact, the family is so interesting, they probably could have made for an interesting movie on their own without any stalking killers with cross bows and machetes. But alas, just when I was content to watch the family go all “August: Osage County” on us, a lethal arrow bursts through the dining room window and splits open the head of one of the guests. Thus, the terror begins.
Too often in movies like this the only interest lies in the pecking order of the deaths or seeing just how each victim meets their demise. (The last three or four "Saw" entries comes to mind). But here the family dynamic stays front and center throughout. Even when they’re ducking for cover, the sibling rivalry is ever-present. Various family members may get bludgeoned and slashed, but their old wounds remain open and just as lethal.
There’s a lot of bloodletting and death here but Wingard never lingers on the gore. Instead, he keeps a tight focus on his characters and how they react to the family carnage. He uses the space of his setting brilliantly too as the well-appointed house is turned to ruins, another victim of the violence. His composer Mads Heltsberg doesn’t overdo the musical cues, and at times seems to even be cleverly riffing on chords from horror composers such as John Carpenter and Pino Donaggio. It's an exceedingly smart and well-thought out film at every corner of its production.
And Wingard gets terrific performances from his entire cast. Vinson makes for an easy-to-like and laudable heroine. Her physicality, brilliantly on display dancing in "Step Up 3-D" two years ago, serves her well here as she handles all of her fight scenes and stunt work with strength and bearing. Bowen and Swanberg give standout performances as the two petty brothers who bicker and badger each other incessantly. And it’s a delight to see the still gorgeous Barbara Crampton back on the big screen. Here she's the matriarch, but you'll remember her as the comely co-ed who got head from the severed head in the horror camp classic “Re-animator” (1985). My only complaint is that she’s out of the picture here way too soon!
“You’re Next” succeeds as a sharp horror movie by avoiding so many clichés that plague the genre. It doesn’t short shrift character, it doesn’t dwell on the violence, and when the family starts fighting back against the bad guys, they’re fairly capable. In fact, at one point Erin turns the tables on one masked killer and repeatedly stoves his head in with her mallet. It gets applaud for scoring one for the good guys as well as the fact that it eliminates the cliched possibility of the villain returning to fight again as they do in so many other horror movies. When this villain is killed, he stays dead!
But what makes this movie truly special is how its horrors are really within the family. The three attacking thugs wear animal masks to intimidate and to hide their identities, but the siblings wear masks of civility to cloak their viciousness. This is a family with plenty of villains who wield words like sharpened axes. And when the real axes show up, there have already been plenty of cuts.