Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Producer: Keith Calder, Jessica Wu, Simon Barrett, Kim Sherman
Stars: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Sarah Myers, Amy Seimetz, Ti West, Rob Moran, Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden
A family is terrorized in their secluded home by a trio of murderous intruders disguised in animal masks.
Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, “You’re Next” waited in distribution purgatory for two years before releasing in 2013 to respectable acclaim and modest commercial success. Positive word of mouth kept the film on its feet while taking shots to the chin from some critics and moviegoers, turning it into the Weeble Wobble of horror films. It is an apropos analogy considering how the movie stumbles around looking for its legs to prevent a full faceplant on the canvas. “You’re Next” bobbles a garden variety first act with a nearly nonsensical second, but redeems itself in the final third by replacing its straight slasher setup with a stylistic flourish of personality.
Mr. and Mrs. Davison are readying their secluded country manor for a family gathering. Joining mom and dad to celebrate their milestone wedding anniversary are the couple’s four grown children and everyone’s significant others. But, as Eli Roth narrates in his “Thanksgiving” trailer, “an uninvited guest has arrived.” Three of them, in fact. While the Davisons squawk, squabble, and stuff their faces over the dinner table, a trio of intruders dons barnyard masks and besieges the house for a murderous game of Ten Little Indians.
With a premise running low on novelty appeal, the delivery is left with the Herculean task of lifting “You’re Next” from under a heap of similar home invasion thrillers. And the initial exposition scenes let that ball slip to the ground more often than they hold on for a first down.
Siblings arriving at the house figure the best way to introduce themselves is to approach silently before putting a hand on someone’s startled shoulder. Victims slowly backpedal in fear before predictably turning around into a killer’s blade. When footsteps are heard coming from a supposedly empty upstairs room, someone offers false assurance that it is just an old house creaking. These disappointingly typical scare tactics grow like unruly weeds to divert the action down a steady path of been there done that.
If this first drive downfield is the equivalent of an unrecoverable fumble and turnover, the second possession results in a punt. “You’re Next” goes from blasé to unbelievable when characters start forgetting what happened thirty seconds ago so the script can move lazily forward to the next kill.
A crossbow sniper sends physical bolts and psychological terror piercing through the Davison’s dining room window. What follows is a panicked scramble to safety as family members hurtle past open curtains while fueled by adrenaline and fear. It is a short-lived concern apparently, as once the plot calls them to move to another room, the bare windows and crossbow sniper are suddenly no longer a concern. Additionally, despite knowing that at least one murderer lurks in the darkness outside, and after a failed run for help results in a severed throat, several characters still attempt making a break for it further into the film as if those previous dangers magically dissipated altogether.
Fortune really favors the Davison clan when it comes out that son Crispian’s college TA girlfriend Erin happens to have been raised in a survivalist camp by her conspiracy-addled father. Who better to turn the tables on the masked intruders while also turning the woodland home into a Rube Goldberg deathtrap?
As all-too convenient as this development is, “You’re Next” finally puts points on the board and begins marching towards a come from behind victory once it completes this morph into an R-rated “Home Alone.” Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett take their sweet time getting there, but the up-tempo swing affords them the opportunity to put their signature styles onscreen in the dialogue, filmmaking, and splatter.
For better or for worse, depending upon one’s personal preference for home invasion horror, the feral-faced maniacs of “You’re Next” deliver physical tension, but without the same psychological effect as their counterparts in “The Strangers.” Missing from their repertoire is that curious animal quality of admiring their kill, which is ironic considering they wear animal masks and have stalked their prey for days. These are men motivated mainly by murder, and not as much by terror.
Treating their antagonizing role as a nearly nondescript threat makes way for the heroine and her dysfunctional supporting cast to take center stage. A particular standout, Sharni Vinson gives Erin the resourceful badassery of Zoe Bell encapsulated in the demure sweetness of Jenna Fischer. The presence she brings to that persona makes her character work, and she is rightfully where the spotlight should be.
Interactions between family members feel entirely natural and are entirely hysterical, yet still restrained. Something about the way these brothers and sisters find a way to continue petty bickering even while one has an arrow in the back is strangely appropriate in the context of this film’s world. This is not Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright, or Sam Raimi styled horror-comedy. This is straight horror that just happens to have intentionally funny moments peppering up the atmosphere.
Had the front portions been loaded with flair similar to the back end, “You’re Next” would be less divisive among audiences unsure of how to categorize its brand of appeal. It is a slow start of dry conventions and eye-rolling “oh c’mon” moments. But the kills become more creative, the interplay grows punchier, and the entire package eventually flips a horror movie pancake burnt with mediocrity on one side to expose a fluffy, tasty, buttery treat of entertainment on the other.
Review Score: 70