You're Next

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/13/13 12:51:12

"Brings a little action to its horror."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I started writing this by referring to "You're Next" as a home-invasion thriller, which was an accurate enough label but didn't feel quite right. That's because for as much as it's an attempt to play on the audience's fear that they might not even be safe in their own homes, there's a lot of "Die Hard" in its DNA, so that while it's still got the heart of a horror movie (the type that can pump gallons of blood when necessary), it's not as entirely beholden to dread as its brethren.

Paul Davison (Rob Moran) and his wife Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) are celebrating their thirty-fifth anniversary, which means their four kids and their significant others are returning home for a celebratory dinner: Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his former student Erin (Sharni Vinson); smug Drake (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Aimee (Amy Seimetz); only daughter Kelly (Sarah Myers) and her boyfriend Tariq (Ti West); and youngest son Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn). It's not long before they are passive-aggressively needling each other, completely unaware that there's much greater danger afoot, in the form of the masked marauders who killed their neighbors days before. But then, as much as the guys in the animal masks have set their traps carefully, they didn't figure on some of their victims going down much harder than expected.

Not all of them, though; ten potential protagonists is a lot for a ninety-odd-minute movie to have, so director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett waste no time disposing of some. The violence doesn't quite come out of nowhere - there was a fairly nasty teaser to start the movie off - but it's not quite expected at that moment, and kicks off a good long run of things being very bloody. The make-up and fake blood departments have their work cut out for them, and while many of the kills are staples - arrows, knives, and the like - there are a couple that are rather memorable, both for their being relatively creative and for how carefully the filmmakers trick the audience into feeling like things might just turn out differently.

The thing that makes this movie fun as opposed to just harrowing - a description it occasionally manages to attain - is that it's not entirely one-sided; although the would-be victims don't have anybody quite so capable as the attackers - and even if they were, they'd be giving up a lot in terms of preparation and armament - they're not flailing about helplessly, going through the usual pattern of futile resistance/flight/noble sacrifice/heartbroken rage. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game where the family never loses underdog status, and a remarkably well-executed one: There's seldom anything set up that doesn't pay off, and while the story offers up surprises and twists that need some explanation, the reasoning is never more complicated than it needs to be: Wingard and Barrett recognize that the point isn't showing the audience how clever one is, but making sure they can get from one thrill to the next without cheating.

They juggle the cast nicely as well, getting good performances from all even if some aren't around for very long. Horror fans will get a kick out of some cast members, like still-game scream queen Barbara Crampton and directors Ti West and Larry Fessenden, but it's the younger folks who carry a lot of the movie's weight and do it well. Joe Swanberg, for instance, is quite enjoyably snotty as Drake, finding the line where one might start rooting for him to be impaled and staying just below it. He plays especially well off AJ Bowen; it's the sort of pairing that one member likely sees as sibling rivalry while the other feels genuine dislike. And there probably aren't enough good things to say about Sharni Vinson that don't give too much away; she's got a lot to do - her role is among the most physical while also requiring the most emotional nuance - and there's not a moment when she falters.

That can be said for the filmmakers as well. They and their cast and crew get all the mechanical stuff right - the audience knows the lay of the land during action sequences, the gore is convincing, and the timing is spot-on - but they handle a lot of little things that many other filmmakers might not give a lot of attention: Getting a lot out of a CD player on repeat, for instance, or the way they don't ruin things with "one last jump". It's also a beautifully shot movie, with just the right sort of darkness or harsh artificial light in each scene.

The best movies in both the horror and action genres have that in common - a sort of precision in how they are made and detailed, but with the filmmakers always keeping the visceral reaction they want in mind. As a film that straddles the genres, "You're Next" could have stumbled in twice as many ways, but instead it manages to hit everything just right, even if it is with an axe.

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