You’re Next has a gimmick. It’s an old one, one that’s rarely used in horror movies today. For some people this gimmick is going to seem pretty obvious, but for a generation raised on retreads and remakes, You’re Next’s central gimmick will seem beyond fresh and exciting.
That gimmick? A really good script.
Add to that some excellent performances and You’re Next is that rarest of horror movies, one where you root for the people being killed. Even rarer, it’s the sort of horror movie where you don’t mind the scenes where nobody is being killed because the characters are funny and interesting and bounce off each other in great ways.
The premise: a rich family getting together for a reunion at an isolated country house. Tensions are high and siblings are bickering, but it’s about to get much worse. During the Davison family dinner a group of assailants wearing animal masks lays siege to the home, picking off family members one by one. A bloody message scrawled on the wall above one body gives the film its title. But the family isn’t defenseless; the newest addition to the Davison tribe is Erin, fiancee of loser son Crispian, and she happens to have some survival skills that come in handy. Setting traps and fighting back, Erin is the only hope the Davisons have of getting through the night and figuring out why the hell somebody is trying to kill them all.
Simon Barrett’s script sketches a dysfunctional family that should be annoying, but his touches of humor and humanity allow the material to transcend cheap bickering. That humor comes from the characters, not from the situation - You’re Next isn’t interested in deconstruction or mocking horror tropes. Rather the movie goes to great pains to reinvigorate them; tearing down cliches is easy, making them work is hard, and You’re Next does the hard work.
The Davison family is played by a host of faces that will be familiar to indie movie fans but absolutely obscure to the world at large. Among the group are two directors, and they stand on the exact opposite ends of the acting spectrum. Ti West, director of The House of the Devil, is unable to even look out a window convincingly. Joe Swanberg, mumblecore power player, all but wins the movie as Drake, the Davison son who begins as a complete douchebag but ends up a douchebag you like a whole lot. It’s a pretty entertaining performance, and Swanberg uses his WASPy looks to great effect to play a guy you hope dies… but then pulls the rug out from under you by making you actually cheer for him.
Other familiar indie faces include AJ Bowen, who plays the schlubby, bearded schmuck son Crispian - ie, the identification character at all film festivals. Bowen has fun with the role, bringing a sad sack energy that marks Crispian as very unlike the rest of his family. Amy Seimetz, most recently killing it in Upstream Color, is daughter Aimee; I wish she had more to do in the movie, but she does get one of the movie’s most awesome moments (I can’t spoil it, but it’s so good).
Presiding over all these new faces is Barbara Crampton, scream queen extraordinaire. As the matriarch of the Davison family she’s the center of family dynamics, and she’s great as a strong woman who begins falling apart when unthinkable horror invades her home. It’s such a great bit of casting, anchoring all the other relationships.
But the true star of You’re Next is Australian actress Sharni Vinson. She’s Erin, Crispian’s girlfriend, new to the Davison family. Vinson is beautiful, sure, but more than that she projects absolute capability while maintaining a level of vulnerability. When the shit hits the fan she immediately goes into survival mode, setting traps and securing weak spots in the house, but she’s not Sarah Connor. She’s someone just as terrified as everybody else except she has training to fall back on; the magic in Vinson’s performance is that she allows you to see how all of this comes instinctually to Erin. She’s a badass, but a totally real badass.
Director Adam Wingard shoots the film’s action with big energy, sometimes getting right up on cartoonishness. He toes the line perfectly, giving the audience ample opportunities to both cheer and wince without ever taking them out of the reality of the situation. Unlike this summer’s previous home invasion movie, The Purge, You’re Next creates a real sense of space in the Davison house, allowing us to understand where people are from one minute to the next. It’s a more polished and controlled bit of directing than we’ve previously seen from Wingard; combined with his improved V/H/S 2 segment this marks him as one of the most exciting smaller scale filmmakers working.
There’s a whydunnit aspect to You’re Next that seems like it won’t pay off, but it does in a big way with an amazing final villain speech. I won’t give it away, but somebody in this movie gets a career-exploding moment. The film never gets bogged down in this stuff, though - the focus is on the relentless forward push of the assault, as the Animals (as they’re known in the marketing) keep trying to pick off the family members. You’re Next always keeps itself fun, always keeps itself moving and always gives the audience something to care about. What a weird gimmick: they made a movie that’s actually just really fucking good.