You're Next (2013)
Dir: Adam Wingard
Scr: Simon Barrett
We open in black with the screams of a women in distress, screams revealed to be carnal rather than homicidal in nature. This is one of the smarter tricks the film plays, so, if it doesn't deliver, you have your early waterline. This cold-open couple is our introduction to the murderous villainy afoot. Intruders clad in plastic animal masks (fox, sheep, tiger, if it matters) write YOU'RE NEXT on the window in the woman's blood as a message to the man, which is promptly reaffirmed when he is macheted in the face. The fact that this message faces outside toward the camera rather than inside towards the intended reader is a stylised touch of titling that I found bothersome. Perhaps these psychos didn't practise backwards writing on their notebooks in school like I did.
All the standard character molds are here: truculent and domineering alpha eldest, Drake (Joe Swanberg), nebbish middle, Crispian, the youngest, Felix (Nicholas Tucci), as the black sheep and daddy's princess, Aimee (Amy Seimetz), the only daughter. Parents track similarly well-trodden paths with the father, Paul (Rob Moran), a respected patriarch who gives handshake greetings to his sons, and the mother, Aubrey (Re-Animator scream queen Barbara Crampton), suffering from an unspecific psychiatric disorder which has her crying over mysterious sounds from upstairs. Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Aubrey and be more wary of mysterious sounds from upstairs.
The home of the home invasion story is often set up as a place of peace and pleasant domestic seclusion, not so here. Davison Snr's isolated holiday home is a half-hearted retirement project, renovated by contractors at arm's length according to a snipe from Drake. The cold mansion isn't warmed any by the members of the anniversary party, as sibling rivalry, parental disappointment and mean spirited gossip start in earnest as soon as they arrive. The film appears to have a fondness for couples over families, with romantic relationships seen as armour in the clan battles. Family is something to suffer through and you better have someone to suffer it with.
Agreeable dinner conversation lasts until the subject of Erin and Crispian's relationship comes up, she used to be his TA and a mumbled comment about professionalism touches a nerve. Anyone with a family that descends into dinner-table strife at a moment's notice should feel right at home here. This relatable situation certainly establishes a realistic world, which is therefore more upsetting to see violently demolished. The familial discontent quickly humanises the cast in the short period of pre-mayhem characterisation and endears us to desperate-to-please outsider Erin, our protagonist. Care is taken with the most minor characters, notably even Tariq (Ti West), Aimee's pretentious, indie-documentarian boyfriend, who's quiet exasperation at the hellish ménage he's been grafted onto is a nice touch. His lack of engagement is his downfall though and a what's-that-outside investigation at the window leads to a crossbow bolt in the head and one less happy couple. The slow realisation of the rest of the party as the camera travels from the shards of glass on the floor, to the broken window, to Tariq's new cranial cantilever is an early sign of the skillful control of tension and release that the film often excels at. Frequently shots will be held for longer than comfortable and moments of emotion, such as a particularly affecting scene of collapsed grief from Barbara Crampton, are allowed to play out, sustaining at least some of the well-paced realism of the first act through the extreme carnage of the second and third.
As the Davisons are whittled down, and desperate panic sets in, Erin is shown to be particularly skilled at dispatching people from this earth. She organises the defence of the house in the same calm manner that we imagine somewhere in ourselves while we chastise the ineptitudes of the usual horror victims, dashing as they do into basements clutching nary a ladle for protection. Dealing hammer blows to one intruder with the cold efficiency of a veteran construction worker, she gets a taste for justice and becomes an remarkably effective killing machine, much to the surprise of her boyfriend.
One of the more praiseworthy aspects of the film is that Erin is a simple but trenchant female character. She bucks female horror stereotypes without too obvious a deviation, and is the only nonstandard character in the otherwise cliché-ridden cast. She's allowed to be emotional but is cool under pressure, vulnerable but not weak, and is strategic and brutal in a genre which, even at its best, reserves those attributes for men. Sharni Vinson's performance is terrific, largely carrying the film, and there is much to enjoy in rooting for her against the hapless men who doubt her abilities and resourcefulness.
You're Next is a knowing horror film with evident genre-fan Wingard planting tongue in cheek, but it mostly plays it straight. There's a nod here to the window escape from Texas Chainsaw, and a wink there as a character acknowledges the peculiar ease of Erin's retribution via meat tenderiser, but otherwise the film is out to shock and scare in standard style. It's not so much avoiding the clichés as slightly skewing them, wringing out what must be the last dregs from the tired wash-rag of the slasher genre. Indulging in the tropes of horror while pointing them out, when recent superior meta-horror films, such as Cabin In The Woods, Tucker and Dale vs Evil and Rubber, have been upending them, means that You're Next never achieves much beyond its slasher forebears. While consistently entertaining and providing genuine dread in the lead up to infrequent but effective scares from left-field, You're Next does not endure in the mind a moment beyond the credits.
By Kieran Gosney