You're Next is the most fun I've had in a dark room while keeping my hands to myself in a very long time.
Hollywood treats horror fans like we are the same mindless and hungry horde of zombies that we love so much. More than any other genre, we're at the receiving end of the ruthless assembly line machinery that churns out sequels and remakes and reboots until whatever it is becomes unprofitable (and then we'll get a few straight to DVD releases as a final garnish of insult). We have the unfortunate distinction of, generally, being much smarter than the genre we love and the filmmakers that exploit it.
When a film comes along that was clearly made by people who love and respect the genre, I feel the need to praise it as loudly and publicly as possible. This year has been an uncharacteristically good one for mainstream horror fans who don't necessarily have the patience or energy to track down the indie releases -- Evil Dead and The Conjuring were both worthy additions to the bloody cabin and haunted house sub genres, respectively. You're Next continues the trend by being one of the best home invasion films I've ever seen.
The home invasion genre is gaining popularity, and I think part of the reason is that its horrors tend to be the most plausible, and therefore, for meta-meta-meta-meta audiences, the most frightening. This summer's earlier attempt, The Purge, while a financial success, left many horror fans dissatisfied, and You're Next is almost like a thank you for the (way too many people) that spent money on it.
There is much to love about this film, so let me get the bad out of the way first. The story -- a bunch of people wearing ridiculous masks break into a house and start a systematic butchering of those within -- is nothing new. Their premise for doing so is ridiculous. The characters are mostly vile and poorly acted -- even Re-Animator's Barbara Crampton didn't quite do it for me here. The film offers nothing new in terms of concept or characterization.
So why do I love it so much? You're Next nearly (but not quite) does for home invasion what Scream did for the slasher film, taking genre tropes and cliches and spinning them around to create something that feels fresh and exciting while still being a respectful and worthy addition to its genre on its own merits. If The Purge was an example of an interesting premise done poorly, this is the complete opposite. There is nothing compelling about this story or these characters on paper, but the end result somehow manages to transcend this. This is a film made by horror fans for horror fans.
The opening sequence starts things off in classic slasher fashion and the film builds from there. Although everyone inside the house is mostly unlikable, a believable family dynamic is established. They're passive aggressive and nasty with each other the way only a rich white family can be, and I really did feel as if I was watching a waspy Sunday dinner. Director Adam Wingard and Screenwriter Simon Barrett have crafted a smart, scary, and surprisingly funny film with excellent pacing (at no point does it lag), smart choices on both sides of the camera, and the rare ability to successfully toe the line between homage and redundancy. The score also deserves a mention, allowing enough quiet to STAY quiet so that when it does chime in -- sometimes jarringly, in John Carpenter fashion -- it is effective, welcomed, non intrusive, and kind of cool.
The true success here, though, and what carries this film and why it works is its star, Sharni Vinson. As Erin, an Australian girl with an extremely unorthodox past, Vinson turns in a performance that is far more impressive than her list of IMDB credits (Step Up 3D, Blue Crush 2) . Everything about this film's success hinged on Vinson's ability to play this sort of unrealistic character in a way that brought her to life and made her seem genuine, and she does this perfectly. It would have been easy for a lesser actress to play this role like a cartoonish comic book character, but she gives it the right amount of nuance and somberness to make me believe it. I believe her when she's scared, I believe her when she's hurt, and best of all I believe her when she's pissed off.
While 2006's The Strangers frightened audiences in a way that has given it enduring popularity, that film was a study in passivity. It worked, but it worked once, and I'm glad it (so far) hasn't been victim to sequelization. You're Next works as an effective reaction to this. Vinson makes an excellent Final Girl, lacking only the frizzy hair to make her the spiritual successor to Nightmare on Elm Street's Nancy Thompson. In fact, I could almost feel Nancy nodding her head in stern approval watching Erin make all of the right choices throughout her horrific ordeal (actually, I was fanboyishly imagining Erin as Nancy's daughter, in an alternate world where she survived the third Nightmare film). If you've ever suffered through a horror movie and wanted to reach into the screen and slap everyone for being so incredibly stupid, you will find Erin to be a particularly satisfying character. The rest of the cast is not quite so resourceful and are all pretty clueless, but then again, most people in real life are pretty fucking stupid as well.
Tonally, the film manages to inject some much needed humor into its dire situation -- it's not quite the zaniness of Home Alone(itself a kind of frightening home invasion film, if you think about it) but there are moments where laughter helps break the tension and seems contextually appropriate. And when things do become pretty bleak towards the end, by that point I was actually emotionally invested enough to feel both nervous and satisfied -- rare emotions for a horror fan as jaded and desensitized as myself. As a side note, I appreciate that the killers took the time to draw the apostrophe when scrawling "You're Next" on the wall. Clearly these killers are a byproduct of modern times: over-educated, under-employed, and possibly having read a buzzfeed article that shames poor grammar with gifs from 80's movies.
It's unfortunate that You're Next had an unimpressive seventh place opening weekend, particularly at a time when other smart (for a summer release) films like Elysium are also flopping, and especially considering that a vastly inferior horror film has outgrossed it in recent months. Perhaps audiences have horror burnout (I'm curious to see how Insidious 2 fares in a couple of weeks) but this film is an unfair recipient of that fatigue. You're Next is exactly the fun, fresh, and rejuvenating horror film I've been desperate for, and any fan of horror should go see this immediately. We should do everything we can to support filmmakers that treat us this kindly. You're Next may be the last good one we get before all the awful sequels to this year's successes start zombie-popping out of the ground next fall, as brainless and empty on arrival as we will feel when we inevitably spend money on watching them. Rating: B+