Much like Scream did almost 20 years ago now (it really has been that long), You’re Next resurrects the oft derided slasher genre with demented, witty, and terrifying glee. While not as relentlessly self-reflexive as Wes Craven’s work in the mid-90s, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barret have found a way to balance sly humour, splat-tastic gore, genuine suspense, and genre convention with a great amount of dexterity and love for their audience. It’s one of the few slasher films that could ever be described as being fun to watch and without being ironic about it.
Paul (Rob Moran) and Audrey (Re-Animator and Chopping Mall vet Barbara Crampton) have invited their adult kids and significant others to show off their new retirement project: a fixer upper house set back in the woods in near seclusion. Fledgling writer Crispian (AJ Bowen) arrives with his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson). His insufferably gloating, disdainful, painkiller addict brother Drake (Joe Swanberg) brings his enabling wife (Margaret Laney). Underappreciated sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz) brings her filmmaker boyfriend (Ti West). Youngest child Felix (Nicholas Tucci) shows up with his dark and mysterious new lover (Wendy Glenn). Things go well enough at first – minus the fact that they all seem to hate each other – until a bunch of animal mask wearing thugs begins picking them all off one at a time with machetes and crossbow fired arrows. It’s up to the astoundingly badass Erin – who’s essentially up there with Liam Neeson from Taken in terms of having an unknown special set of skills – to keep everyone banded together to stay alive.
There’s no mistaking You’re Next for anything more than a funhouse lark, but it’s more tightly constructed than most films of its ilk. To paraphrase something that actor Michael Rooker once told me, jump scares are effective 100% of the time if they are done properly. It seems like a little thing to say that Wingard can effectively pull off one of the biggest clichés in horror movies, but he always finds new ways to either make them genuinely scary or to make them into hilarious, cathartic jokes. He starts with the simple jump scares, leads to a single sequence where everyone gets together to display their personalities, and then he gets right down to business with ruthless efficiency, smart pacing, excellent editing (also overseen by Wingard), and enough genuine intelligence to hold what’s admittedly a flimsy premise together.
Straddling the fine line between satire, believability, and genre convention, Wingard and Barrett wisely make their cast grown adult stereotypes instead of teenage cannon fodder. It’s a lot more fun to watch adults acting like children than simply having teens fumble their way through things blindly. Everyone within the house sometimes comes up with good ideas to ensure their survival, but quite often they never think about how their ideas will actually work. Even Erin, our strong and hearty heroine, sets up a trap that sounds great on paper (if wholly and lovingly ripped off from A Nightmare on Elm Street and Home Alone), but can be thwarted very easily.
The body count starts piling up at a brisk rate, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some great performances. Vinson is a revelation as the hero of the piece. Her Erin doesn’t take crap from anyone, is always able to keep a level head, is never once sexualized, and kicks a whole lot of ass. Bowen gets some chuckles as her standoffish and ineffective beau. Swanberg also has some wonderful moments as the magnanimous asshole who might not be as bad as everyone thinks he is.
A twist at the film’s halfway point keeps things fresh and adds just enough motivation to effectively explain what’s happening without taking itself too seriously. Once the actual dynamics of the story are laid bare does Wingard give the audience exactly what they expect from this kind of blood and guts strewn affair. The score starts to get a lot more synth based, long dormant gags pay off, the kills get a lot more ridiculous, and the stakes are raised considerably. As with the best slasher movies, anyone can die at any time, but instead of being rote, it’s consistently interesting and engaging. It’s not a reinvention of the genre by its conclusion, but rather one of the best examples when talking about how such films can be made with brains, boobs, and blood by people who want to tell a fun story instead of getting off on the sickest of thrills. Sure, the thrills can be pretty grotesque, but if you’re the type of person who would willingly buy a ticket to such a film, you’ll be far more than just pleasantly surprised. And if you don’t normally go for this kind of film, it will probably be one of the few examples of the genre you won’t hate.