As a critic, the genre I am forced to defend more than any other is horror. But I do it gladly because for me horror is a canvas that can show us the very best and worst of human nature. Its slashers and monsters reveal our own flaws: cowardice, selfishness, wrath. But its heroes—who often come out on top—show virtues like bravery, selflessness, and resilience. Consider Jaws. The monster reveals the mayor of Amity to be a greedy man more concerned with commerce than public safety, but Chief Brody puts himself at risk—facing his fear of the ocean—to nobly save the town he’s come to love. Yes, Jaws is scary—but it’s more than that. It’s also darkly inspiring.
I say all this to explain why I actively loathe horror movies that lack this balance and just revel in the bad side of our nature. When a horror movie is just a one-note slideshow of carnage and bad behavior, it gets added to the mountain of arguments used by people who think the genre is trash. And by my count You’re Next has just gleefully hurled itself onto that pile.
This home invasion slasher centers on the wealthy white Davison family, who pack up their significant others and long-held resentments to reunite at their semi-isolated vacation house for their parents’ anniversary. Little do they know there are killers lurking in the woods, killers who favor black military attire and white animal masks. This strange juxtaposition is decidedly menacing, and makes for the film’s best visual touch. Early on there are hints to something being off about this trip, like a neighbor ignoring knocks at his door, or footsteps in rooms thought to be empty. But between the snapping sibling rivalry of flailing professor Crispian (AJ Bowen) and overgrown daddy’s boy Drake (Joe Swanberg), the Davisons miss these clues.
All hell breaks loose at a family dinner when one of their guests is abruptly shot in the face by a crossbow bolt fired through the window. The Davisons understandably freak out, attempt to regroup and find a way to safety. But their cell phone signals have been jammed, the killers are clearly stalking about outside, and may even be inside. What are the Davisons to do? Much to Crispian’s surprise, his new girlfriend, an Australian literature enthusiast named Erin (Sharni Vinson) shows a bizarre aptitude for quick thinking and self-defense. With her guidance could this in-fighting clan possibly survive the night?
You’re Next centers on a solidly intriguing concept, and in a sense it’s fresh. Rather than teens trapped in a tiny cabin, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett switch it up by putting a fully-grown family in a sprawling country home. Rather than there being too few ways to escape, there are too many places for killers to hide. And instead of easily frightened and impetuous youth being the victims’ downfalls, it’s often the family’s own dysfunctions. For instance, when they decide someone should run to get help, the brothers get into an obviously long-raging battle over who’s more athletic, only to be interrupted by their little sister’s insistence that she can do it—accompanied by her shrill complaint no one believes in her. This kind of emotional motivation could have proved a compelling thread in the film, but Wingard and Barrett reject it, instead focusing the filmmakers’ dark sense of humor on the family’s suffering rather than respecting their complicated connections.
As the girl—whose name I never caught except that her Daddy calls her “Princess”—prepares for this dangerous rescue attempt, the movie’s editing mocks her. Cutaways to her brothers make them look dopey more than concerned as she readies herself for her run. And then the final insult—though not injury—is Wingard’s decision to show her run in slow motion out the door, which has the effect of making her look absolutely ridiculous and ungainly. The injury that ends this attempt earned laughs from some of the audience, but it just made me feel sick. Why are we making fun of this young woman’s attempt at heroics? Sure, some horror movies offer kills that are both gruesome and darkly funny, but something here killed the comedy aspect for me. I think it was the film’s dedicated mean-streak that harshly judges characters, showing a deep disdain for humanity that I couldn’t get on board with.
Barrett and Wingard took no time to properly establish most of these thinly sketched characters, lazily assigning them roles of “the black sheep,” “the princess,” “the favorite,” “the high-strung one.” This doesn’t give us enough information to relate to them, or judge them as worthy of this grim fate, which left me drifting away from the movie’s attempt to establish its stakes. It’s not fun or engaging to watch them be hunted; it’s just gross. On an archetypal level, Wingard and Barrett do create a final girl, but her character is still so dimly developed that my interest in her is more for her ferocity than any kind of emotional connection.
On top of that Wingard shows no aptitude for either directing or framing actors, getting over-earnest and shallow performances and then staging scenes that blatantly break the 180-degree rule. The geography of action is next to impossible to follow, and I regularly couldn’t tell what room in the house a scene was being staged in, or where the characters were within these rooms. This issue is made worse by sloppy cinematography that cuts people’s heads off just above the eyebrows, or jumbles about to the point of being amateurish looking, even revealing microphone packs on the actors.
Despite how much I obviously detested this movie, it’s not all bad. As I said, the imagery of the killers is quite frightening, though they do lose their punch in the final act. And while most of the acting is abominable, Vinson as the “Final Girl” Erin is believable, and even slightly charismatic. Mostly, she takes hits and delivers blows with a deft skill for screen fighting. But she’s interesting enough that I’d like to see more of her—hopefully in a script that actually creates a character and not just an archetype. Lastly, the sound design is phenomenal. The music chosen is a throwback to the synth-heavy horror of the 80s, and is effectively used to create a mood of dread and tension. (Tension that is often undone by Wingard’s penchant for laughing at his mauled characters, but tension nonetheless.) Likewise, the sound effects from axe strikes to blood splatter to footsteps are palpable, and make the film scary on a purely aural level. So three cheers for the entire sound department, seriously.
As You’re Next dragged on, I began to think of it as a porno. Like your typical porn, it races through a setup and character introduction to get to the money shots, and presents a world where mediocre looking men easily hook up with beautiful women who will get topless at the slightest provocation. And, who cares how incoherently it’s shot if all the audience really wants is too-hot-for-TV scenes? If all you want from a horror movie is gruesome kills and the occasional flash of nudity, then You’re Next will probably be enough to please you. But for me, it just screamed of wasted opportunity.