It undoubtedly helps your enjoyment of You’re Next if you haven’t been hearing for the past two years that it’s brilliant, but Adam Wingard’s latest film is indeed a breath of fresh air in a genre – and subgenre – that has gotten incredibly stale.
Wingard, working with a script from longtime collaborator Simon Barrett (A Horrible Way to Die), gives home-invasion movies a desperately needed jolt of energy, making effective use of the kinds of thrills audiences expect while offering a rejoinder to the often-numbing simplicity of horror killers –and, crucially, their victims. Nevertheless a victim of hype that is thankfully good enough to transcend the elongated waiting period between its festival debut and its arrival in theaters nationwide, You’re Next is a terrifically entertaining film whose intricacies will give it longer legs – for its fans, certainly – than the larger-scale fare it’s competing against.
Sharni Vinson (Step Up 3D) plays Erin, a new girlfriend who agrees to accompany her beau, aspiring academic Crispian (A.J. Bowen, A Horrible Way to Die), to his family reunion. His family wastes no time making him feel like an outcast – his father Paul (Rob Moran) dotes on youngest daughter Aimee (Amy Seimetz), while older brother Drake (Joe Swanberg) torments him mercilessly – but they eventually settle down for an uneasy dinner to kick off the weekend. But before their fractured relationships can deteriorate into full-fledged battles, a mysterious figure in an animal mask begins killing them from outside the house with a crossbow, sending the family into a panic. As the invader and his partners converge on the house, Crispian and the rest of his family scramble to figure out what to do, while Erin begins formulating a plan for survival that promises to give the attackers a taste of their own medicine.
It’s hard to think of almost any horror subgenre that isn’t practically exhausted by now, given the knockoffs and generally bad movies that are being churned out in between the gems. But what’s interesting about You’re Next is that it’s not a true game-changer in the sense that it reinvents home-invasion movies or even makes you look at them differently. Rather, it’s exceptional because it’s expertly executed, with well-constructed characters and a sense of real humanity that simultaneously enhances and undercuts the conventional payoffs audiences expect. After a set-up that cleanly and simply introduces both the threat of attackers and ensemble of victims, Barrett’s script dotes on the personalities of his protagonists, and then throws the two groups together to both intensify the suspense and highlight how those personalities influence individual behavior. That Crispian is decidedly un-athletic and cowed by his bullying brother, perfectly plays into his reaction to the attack, for example.
At the same time, Barrett and Wingard throw Erin into the mix as a catalyst for change – not just to the dynamic of a familiar concept, but to the conventions of a genre itself. Final girls, suffice it to say, are nothing new, but Erin’s resourcefulness comes as a surprise to everyone – not just to the audience but to the characters within the film as well. And as she unleashes her hidden expertise as a survivalist of sorts upon their assailants, there’s a deliciousness to the revenge she inflicts upon them, perhaps less in the context of the film than in that of movies where time and time again female characters are virtually helpless to defend themselves. Vinson gives the character a believable sort of strength that isn’t Sarah Connor-style invincibility, but everyday common sense, bolstered by a few backstory details that give her resilience a gratifying counterpoint to the indefatigable sneakiness of her adversaries.
As Crispian, Bowen demonstrates he’s capable of a remarkable variety of performances, here feeble and cowardly where in, say, A Horrible Way to Die he had a terrifying sort of placidity. Expertly communicating the tenderness that would win him the attention of someone like Erin while also suggesting how it probably emerged from lifelong feelings of persecution or dismissal, Bowen delivers a complex portrayal of weakness and vulnerability that’s disguised behind a milquetoast façade. As Drake, meanwhile, Swanberg throws himself into one unflattering performance after another, convincingly playing that handsome, athletic sibling whose sense of superiority was enabled by parents and bolstered by superficial, picturesque success.
To say more about the plot would be a disservice to potential viewers, but again, the sense of surprise that it generates rewards attentive fans, because it uses the conventions of past films and then plays them against expectation. In other words, Wingard’s film is less about what happens in that house between victim and attacker than how it’s about what happens, which is distinction that’s enormously important at a time when it feels like commercial rather than creative ambition seems to drive so many genre filmmakers. Ultimately, You’re Next exemplifies the kind of horror movies that should be made, and that audiences respond most strongly to: fun, scary and smart, with a mastery of the genre that manipulates audiences by scaring them with techniques they’ve experienced, and then surprising them with creative choices that they haven’t.
You’re Next arrives in theaters today.