I know it’s only August, but having seen the bulk of this year’s wide-release horror movies and knowing what the upcoming ones are, I’m going to go ahead and call it. You’re Next is the best pure horror movie you’ll see this year. It’s not the scariest movie you’ve ever seen, nor the creepiest or the goriest, but it so meticulously and cleverly assembles its parts that it creates a superbly satisfying horror experience.
It’s a great example of a film that takes a simple and not particularly original premise, and excels not in its idea, but in its execution. The tone is set right off the bat, starting with a shocking couple of murders that do a terrific job of not only giving the viewer a glimpse of what’s to come, but also quickly creating a sense of dread that pervades the film from the earliest frames. It quickly proceeds to its central narrative, concerning an obscenely wealthy, WASPy family getting together for the parents’ wedding anniversary. Director Adam Wingard, working off of frequent co-collaborator Simon Barrett’s script, does an excellent job of drawing out the critical characteristics of each family member through a brief, intense series of vignettes for each of them, giving just enough background and familial conflict to understand the curious family dynamics of this group of idly rich, utterly unprepared individuals.
And they are indeed unprepared, for during the anniversary dinner, in the midst of a heated argument, hell breaks loose. A flurry of crossbow bolts a fired from the darkness into the house, killing some, wounding others, and from there the film hits the ground running and never lets up for the remainder of its brisk 95 minutes. There are bad, bad men outside, and they are clearly there to kill everyone. What proceeds is a horrific cat-and-mouse chase throughout the family’s massive rural home, a chase filled with a combination of devious ingenuity and brutal slaughter. It’s delightfully, deviously effective because the family has neither a clue why it’s happening, nor the faintest idea what to do. The family is so utterly separated from the harsh realities of the world that they are practically running into each other, often to comic effect. Yet it’s done with such striking intensity that it never feels forced or even satirical, but rather simply a group of people with no earthly idea what is happening or how to respond.
The x-factors are some of the guests, notably the girlfriend of one son, Erin (Sharni Vinson, coming a hell of a long way from Step Up 3D) who is far more than she initially appears. Vinson quickly leaps over the conventional female horror protagonist into something far more deadly and enjoyable. Her character is a force of nature, lethally pragmatic and ruthlessly determined to survive, and she is a joy to watch from start to finish. It’s the type of female protagonist you don’t get nearly enough of in horror films, a smart, sensible, capable young woman who uses every tool available to fight her way through the obstacles. It’s not the archetype who screams her way through the first half before finding her inner strength and overcoming her fears — right from the get-go, Erin reacts with a cautious intelligence mixed with a steely determination.
The overall presentation of You’re Next is the key to its success. It deftly synthesizes all of its parts — a contrast between lovely external cinematography and tight, frantic indoor footage, minimalist and jarring music that doesn’t always signify what you think will happen, a deeply twisted and macabre sense of humor, and a group of genuinely chilling, often terrifying silent antagonists. Refreshingly, the film also completely eschews CGI or other fanciful effects, and is done entirely with practical, cleverly staged effects that seamlessly serve the story (instead of clumsily hacking a story out of the effects, as is often the case). It’s everything you could want out of a lower-budget, Spartanly shot horror film — it’s scary without being stupid, gory without being graphic, and with a story that’s just complex enough to be interesting, but doesn’t try to overdo it or try to outsmart the audience with too many curveballs. There are a couple of reveals, and you may well predict them, but they’re still done with such satisfying cleverness that it’s enjoyable nonetheless.
You’re Next is the rare little gem of a film. Wingard and Barrett have partnered often before, and they have a solid grasp of what makes a good horror movie, particularly in their excellent entries in the anthologies V/H/S and The ABC’s Of Death (wherein theirs are by far the best ones in both films). Here they’ve taken all their best elements — grounded realism, a gift for capturing human weakness and venality without making characters too absurd, and a terrific understanding of the role of humor within the horror narrative — and churned out a film that isn’t even remotely original, but is still startlingly enjoyable. It’s a harsh, savage, terrifying experience, one that doesn’t celebrate its violence as much as it artfully demonstrates how it can be used to effectively tell a story. Best of all, it still manages to be fun, in that perverse way that only a really good horror flick can be.