A cost-effective merging of The Strangers, Straw Dogs, and the original Scream, Adam Wingard’s You’re Next adds a bracing dose of eccentricity to the home-invasion thriller. What the film lacks in originality it mostly makes for in personality—a quality fatally lacking from too many contemporary extreme-horror offerings. The setup, too, is novel: Aussie nice-girl Sharni Vinson accompanies her bearded professor boyfriend (AJ Bowen) to his childhood home, where the whole family is gathering for his parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. Were it not for the film’s opening bloodbath, as well as hints of something menacingly amiss in the old country house, it would be possible to confuse this early passage for the opening act of an indie farce—especially once filmmakers Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) and Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine) join the party. Yet just as the dinner table has erupted into a flurry of argument, a razor-sharp arrow pierces the group’s sitcom bubble—and the soft eyeball of one of its guests.
From here, much of what happens in You’re Next is barbaric business as usual: Mysterious assailants in creepy animal masks pick off the innocents one by one, their attacks alternately played for cheap jump scares and mean-spirited humor. (If the disguised marauders recall the villains of this summer’s other residential-assault shocker, The Purge, then Vinson’s resourceful heroine is an archetype as old as slasher cinema.) Yet for all the familiar ground he treads here, Wingard (V/H/S) is no anonymous hack: Though he overly favors a shaky-cam approach to shooting violent chaos, the indie-horror director also has a clear knack for the art of tension and release. In the arrow scene, for example, he allows endless seconds to pass before the squabbling partiers notice something is wrong, delaying the inevitable freak-out for what feels like a small eternity. Later, Wingard returns to the location of the suspenseful first setpiece, putting one character’s fate in the hands of someone who can’t help her and getting spooky-funny mileage out of a pop tune playing on loop. It’s a familiar move, but an effective one.
Written by Simon Barrett, another purveyor of micro-budget carnage, You’re Next boasts a sometimes-uneasy blend of comedy and horror. It’s fun to laugh at Swanberg still talking shit with an arrow sticking out of his back, but what of a mother sobbing over the death of her youngest daughter? The film’s true strength lies not in its gallows humor, but in how it both plays to and subverts expectations: Though the big twist arrives not a moment too soon, right around the time that Wingard has exhausted his basic scenario, there’s plenty of pleasure in anticipating some of the more inevitable money shots—as when, for a grisly example, one character gets a running start on her own demise. And what did Chekhov say about a booby trap introduced in the second act?
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can't reveal in our review, visit You're Next's Spoiler Space.