There’s a pivotal moment in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next where the film upends viewer expectations entirely, not with witty meta twists (though those are valuable), but with the simple plunge of a kitchen knife. Normally, we flock to horror films to observe the wanton butchering of the cast by a brutal, unidentifiable psychopath; in nearly any other movie , the blade would be in the murderer’s hands. Here, though, it’s actually swung by Erin (Sharni Vinson), You’re Next‘s final girl, which comes as almost as much of a surprise to us as to her would-be attacker. Apparently, home invasion victims aren’t as helpless as they used to be.
Truthfully, people designated as “prey” in this particular horror sub-genre have been fighting back against the predators for years, but few among them have been as good at it as Erin. If You’re Next breaks no new ground in terms of retaliation, though, it certainly does regarding efficacy; Adam Wingard’s (of V/H/S and V/H/S/2 fame) film feels like the lean, muscular love child of Home Alone and The Aggression Scale, a ninety minute exercise in propulsive storytelling that understands the rules of heritage and manipulates them with a savage, and focused glee. Unlike June’s The Purge, You’re Next has no highbrow conceit driving the story, just a nasty game of cat and mouse backed up by nothing more than smart writing and a likeable cast.
Wingard’s set-up is simple. The wealthy, yuppie Davison children have gathered together to celebrate their parents’ (Barbara Crampton and Rob Moran) anniversary in mom and dad’s backwoods manse, but they’ve been tracked and unknowingly penned in by a trio of vicious, well-armed party crashers. No sooner do tempers flare as old sibling rivalries resurface than crossbow bolts pierce their family dysfunction and turn the entire affair into bloody chaos. But the Davison’s harbor one house guest with her own wicked skill set: Erin, girlfriend of the sweet, good-natured, hopelessly soft and occasionally sadsack Crispian (A.J. Bowen), who happens to have a survivalist streak in her that’s a mile wide.
As the audience identification character, Erin lets us live out a common flight of fancy among horror fans: that in a scenario like the one You’re Next constructs, we, too, could turn the tables on our assailants and become instinctual badasses. But that’s what makes Erin such a special character. In a way, she’s the ultimate horror fan, decisive, fast-acting, and capable of thinking on her feet; we learn later that her Australian doomsday nut father programmed all of her tactics and techniques into her from youth, but one gets the sense that she’s better-versed in slasher and home invasion fare than us. Stay away from the windows. Don’t go outside. Stick together. Keep yourself armed at all times. Stay alive.
If only the Davisons were smart enough to listen to her. That most of these people are lambs to the slaughter isn’t much of a spoiler – it’s simply a prerequisite of the genre. But unlike so many other contemporary horror movies, we actually care about them. (Well, most of them.) Wingard largely populates his cast with mumblecore luminaries, including fellow V/H/S vets Joe Swanberg (who is completely great as obnoxious, snooty older brother Drake) and Ti West (who can’t even play an indie filmmaker convincingly), along with the very gifted Amy Seimetz, star of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color; Crampton, meanwhile, lends horror icon gravitas to the proceedings while Moran, Bowen, and the rest of the crowd round out You’re Next‘s smorgasbord of corpses-to-be.
Watching them get stalked and maimed by the Animals (the masked men seen in the film’s advertising) actually offers tension and frights. We’re trained to root for the bad guys in horror, viewing them as necessary tools for disposing of the unctuous and awful characters taking up space in the frame; sometimes, that’s a lot of fun, especially if you like your black humor dredged in gore. At others, it’s a chore, or a window into sadism that’s off-putting in its glee. You’re Next might illicit a chuckle or two before things get underway – mostly thanks to Swanberg and Bowen – but once the body count starts picking up, laughter subsides and white-knuckling ensues.
This is where the film becomes Erin’s show and she emerges as the Davison’s champion; there’s no better way to ingratiate yourself to your significant other’s folks than by saving their family. (She’s a whiz in the kitchen, too!) Vinson enjoys the bulk of You’re Next‘s focus, and she carries the attention well, balancing Erin’s steely veneer against her innate terror. If Erin handles herself better than the others, she’s still afraid; Vinson lets fear bubble to the surface when situations afford her that luxury. Erin isn’t an unstoppable killing machine, but she’s not a sitting duck, either, and Vinson finds an equilibrium between the two as the assault on the Davison home unfolds.
Before too long, You’re Next builds to a “why” revelation; this is no The Strangers, a film where the antagonists visit cruelty upon the hapless just because. But Wingard doesn’t pull back the curtain to make us revisit the events of the picture anew. He just needs a reason for the mayhem, and it acts like a sort of glue that helps seal the narrative and quash the nagging questions these pictures typically leave unresolved. (Why didn’t their cell phones get any signal?) It’s a clever flourish that, in tandem with the movie’s thrillingly improvised violence and energetic but steady camerawork, helps distinguish Wingard’s work from and separate it from the horror pack. For being the latest 2013 entry of its archetype, You’re Next manages to be refreshingly original – and all without relying on contrivance and artifice.