While I was in New York for the summer, I kept seeing posters of a figure wearing an animal mask. Coming from the suburbs, seeing that with the words “you’re next” scratched in as if a mental patient had done the work is sort of the last thing you want to see in a subway station at 2am. (I went to a lot of late movies, okay!) But I had heard a little about the film and its premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011. It looked fun. And, as a former horror enthusiast, I am generally up for fun horror films that at least play and tweak with genre conventions. Thankfully, You’re Next not only does that, but does so unconsciously. The point being, it’s enormous fun.
As Crispin Davison (AJ Bowen) and his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) head to a family reunion at a secluded house in the middle of nowhere, the tone for the film has already been set by mysterious goings on nearby. Amidst the family awkwardness and tension, one by one, they’re picked off by figures wearing animal masks, and taunting the remaining survivors with two words: “You’re Next”.
The film’s set up is general enough and fits into the setting of nearly any other horror film or home invasion film. There’s family tension, of course, as the various children of the Davison family have been long estranged for various reasons (reasons which are hinted at but never fully explained). Gathering them all together is what the parents want, as they are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, but anyone who has grudgingly gone to any type of family reunion knows that it is, in the end, a terrible idea. The animosity, then, becomes overwhelming, so tangible and so vicious that even as their lives are in danger, they won’t stop bickering. It’s an interesting dynamic to have in a horror film, because one generally assumes that, even with characters’ differences and tensions, they’ll work together, they’ll fight the killer, they’ll probably die in the process, yada yada yada.
But that’s what You’re Next does fairly successfully: it plays on our expectations of home invasion films. There are dozens of them and they generally have the same premise, the same first, second, and third acts, and, while they are occasionally enjoyable enough, they are very comfortable sitting in the same niche corner without turning it up to eleven. The kills in such films, from When a Stranger Calls… to Lakeview Terrace to Black Christmas, are all rote and similar. You’re Next doesn’t change the game drastically, nor does it need to, but it’s fresh enough by adding a singular interesting quality.
Our leading lady and Final Girl is Erin, played mercilessly by Sharni Vinson. She’s tall, enthusiastic, and hoping to make a good impression on her boyfriend’s family. Her Australian accent automatically makes her an outside and an Other to the wealthy family, so, while the other siblings write her off as kind of obnoxious, she’s got something up her sleeve that will be handy for the evening. As the family members are being killed off in various slick and grotesque ways, Erin takes control of the situation. She’s calm, collected, and makes all the right moves as a survivalist would. As the film goes on, though, one comes to realize that her ability to kill, without the distraction of fear or pity, is as terrifying as the figures lurking throughout the interior and exterior of the large house. Everyone is a target, including her, but she fights back.
It isn’t inherently interesting that the Final Girl attempts to survive or take revenge. We have seen that before and, while it is indeed pleasing, it is far from anything new. What does make it interesting is how she does it. She is brutal and unwavering in her strength. Her survivalist instincts allow her to go in for the kill and take no mercy. It’s survival of the fittest, basically. This profane, animal like intensity is ironic since it becomes evident that there are two kinds of hunters on the floor: the masked killers and Erin. Her techniques may be, in some ways, even more brutal than the killers. But hunting is an interesting part of the film.
Never making an overt appearance beyond the masked killers, it’s as if every point of view shot (hardly anything new in horror movies) is like a scope. Often, the killers use cross bows. But there’s a wicked irony surrounding it all. The masks these killers are wearing are animal masks: wolf, fox, sheep. As the men don their masks, they begin to play a most dangerous game. The ornate house holds a group of fortunate, privileged people, and the cleverest of hunters is out for their blood. But they’re humans hunting other humans, their faces ironically shrouded by animal masks as if the tables have turned. In Richard Connell’s story “The Most Dangerous Game”, wealthy Americans travel to partake in big game hunting of other humans. Initially, there’s only a slight similarity here, but, as the film proceeds, it becomes even more closely connected to Connell’s story.
And while somewhat subverting home invasion tropes is all well and good, what matters more about that is the execution, no pun intended, of the whole thing. Adam Wingard both directed and edited the film, and it isn’t exactly the atmosphere that gets you; it’s the precise timing of each cut. No shot lasts too long or too short. Each one lasts the exact amount of time needed to register, and that is perhaps what I found the most refreshing about the film. Shots that would normally linger would be cut short to accentuate their impact, and coverage of certain scenes would oscillate between the controlled and the kinetic. The cinematography and editing were, in a good way, as unpredictable as the killers themselves.
The plot, as aforementioned, is simple and straightforward. Without the filler of exposition, though, it leaves some characters thin and without, with the exception of Erin, any idiosyncrasies to leave much of an impression. Save for Crispin and Drake (indie auteur Joe Swanberg), a majority of the characters are bland and could fairly easily blend together without much notice. The cast of characters, however rich and one dimensional they are, are completely disposable, and that may be intentional. However intentional that may be, it doesn’t excuse how bland they are.
The presence of a certain amount of macabre humor has led to some comparisons to Wes Craven’s superb horror film Scream, but its dark comedy is rather dry and, at times, undetectable and off in terms of timing. I, personally chuckled a few times, but however off the rails it may have gone with its humor (usually in the form of strange, not quite ironic deaths), it seemed a bit weak in that department. It doesn’t make the film any less fun though, as there is plenty to enjoy, especially in the (mildly predictable) final reveal.
The cast is speckled with indie directors including Joe Swanberg (whose recent film Drinking Buddies is charming, if hardly revelatory) and Ti West (who specializes in really slow burning, very atmospheric ‘80s horror throwbacks like The House of the Devil). Swanberg makes a big impression as an asshat and presumably estranged brother from AJ. And Swanberg is good at being an asshat, which is interesting considering his humane, interesting micro budget and, dare I say, mumblecore films.
To sum it up, though, the best thing about You’re Next is how solid it is. Even disregarding its connections to The Most Dangerous Game, it remains a fun, stylish horror film. While I’m not sure if the film hints at the possibility that we’re all capable of the atrocities depicted in the film, the hunter/hunted motif stiff remains a point of fascination for me in the film. The dread that the film isn’t the same as when you see The Conjuring or Sinister. There’s enough atmosphere in the film for you to keep thinking that maybe someone might be setting their crosshairs on you, that sense of dread that tells you that you’re next.
(Side Note: Props for the creepy use of Dwight Tilley’s “Looking for the Magic”.)