This review originally ran on Topless Robot on June 20th. With renewed interest in the film opening nationwide tomorrow – plus WWE’s blatant co-opting of its imagery for their Wyatt Family gimmick – I’ve bumped it back up for a timely revisit.
Not that the marketing campaign does it any favors in this regard, but boy, was I wrong to imagine You’re Next was going to be a clone of The Strangers. And I am delighted to be so. The Strangers engaged in what I consider a cardinal sin in the horror genre, which is to not provide a single decent moment of cathartic release. That is, in most good-to-great scary movies, regardless of whether or not the evil force finally triumphs, there is at least one money shot in which our main character turns the tables and (either metaphorically or literally) beats the holy bejeezus out of the thing that has been terrorizing him or her the whole movie. I call it a money shot because it often features at least as many bodily fluids spurting as in the porn equivalent, and serves the same purpose – a moment of emotional release after ratcheting up the tension until it can no longer be contained.
So in The Strangers, when the trailer showed our two heroes tied up and confronted by scary masked home invaders, we wondered, “How are they going to get out of this one?” The movie’s answer? They don’t. After being scary the whole movie, those bad guys just capture and kill the good guys – the end. You’re Next, which was explicitly crafted to be a crowd pleaser, does not play that. When the first villain is taken down, the heroes don’t simply assume he’s dead and run away, like so many stupid slasher teens – they bash his brains to a pulp with a meat tenderizer just to be sure. The moment is earned, and don’t worry, this is not some end-of-movie spoiler. It’s a heads-up that the home-invasion horror gets turned on its head in a sly and contemporary fashion.
This is also a movie that features the line, “I want you to fuck me on this bed next to your dead mom.” So there’s that. (Does he or doesn’t he comply? I ain’t sayin’.)
You’re Next may subvert some cliches, but it embraces others – there are characters in this who are dumb as dirt, notably the hot young naked lady in the opening sequence who finds the sliding door mysteriously open…and responds by putting on loud music that would keep her from hearing any potential intruder. Needless to say, the opening sequence ends as most similar scenes do – but the brief appearance by Larry Fessenden as the ugly older boyfriend fulfills LAFF’s annual Fessenden quota (he and/or Ti West always have some involvement with something at the festival; this here’s a twofer as West is in it as well).
The setting for all these events is basically the pretentious parts of upstate New York (whether it’s actually New York isn’t important) where college professor Crispin (AJ Bowen) is bringing his Australian girlfriend (Sharni Vinson, in a potentially breakout role) to a family reunion celebrating his parents’ 35th anniversary. Dad’s recently retired from working for a defense contractor, and mom’s one of those stereotypical rich-and-bored wives who turn to drugs, though she’s in recovery. Brothers Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and Drake (Joe Swanberg) also show up, as does sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz) with filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (West) in tow. Drake’s hilariously straight-faced question upon hearing Tariq makes documentaries: “Do you do commercials, because those are my favorite!”
While many ’80s slashers often had a conservative subtext – kids, listen to your parents and don’t do drugs, blaspheme or have sex – there’s a modern populist slant here: clueless rich people will get what’s coming to them. That the killers lurking outside in animal masks have a military background suggests a chickens coming home to roost element: the defense contractor indirectly helped make these people what they are but doesn’t respect them, and therefore will pay. It’s probably a bit much to infer anything from the casting of indie filmmakers West and Swanberg as two of the most vacuous characters, but you could make a case that it’s a statement about the violence done to smaller films by the studio system. Could. I’m not saying I do. I will say Swanberg is hilarious – the guy has a rep for being a navel-gazer in his own movies, but I don’t see it here.
Anyway, it’s a dysfunctional bunch who assemble at the dinner table, but a sudden arrow to the throat makes things interesting, as this family must keep from arguing long enough to hold it together and survive the siege of mysterious intruders. Some do so idiotically, while others have a ridiculous amount of knowledge of what to do in crisis situations. In both cases, things tend to be explained away hilariously in bits of simplistic exposition that you just have to laugh at and take for granted – “I grew up on a survivalist compound,” for example (that’s an approximation, but I think it’s pretty close to the actual quote. Sue me; I grew up on an illiteracy compound).
Director Adam Wingard keeps things moving in such a way that it never feels beholden to structure – yes, there are rules the movie follows, like that the characters all die off one at a time, but the movie never feels like it’s dragging feet before getting to the inevitable, with plot twists thrown in for good measure and a nice bit of sustained suspense involving a Home Alone-style death device. The gore, while not overwhelming, is likely too heavy for some viewers, but the overarching tone that this is all in fun should induce more smiles than squirms, especially when the ’80s horror synth score kicks in right around the third act.
If horror’s your bag, You’re Next should be your next. Movie to see. Is what I’m saying.
(Publicists, please only quote the entirety of that thing I just said. No fair shortening to just the first part.)