Reflecting on You’re Next, I realized that we’ve been moving away from horror as a form of self-flagellation and moving into a period where new directors are consciously recalling old classics. Adam Wingard, the director, slaughters his cast with the kind of gleeful staging that Sam Raimi showed almost thirty years ago in Evil Dead II. When that film came out Wingard would have been at just about that ripe young age when bodily fluids are still interesting and the right combination of grotesque executions and humor can make a lasting impression. To Wingard’s benefit, they did.
He’s not the only beneficiary of those fertile images, and the casting decision of fellow director Ti West as one of the many victims hints a horror clique of sorts forming. West’s great film House of the Devil is partly an ode to the stark clarity of horror from the ‘70s as it transitioned to a period of monsters and gore in the ‘80s. Wingard’s You’re Next is very much a child of the ‘80s with a pumping synth line, sex-obsession, and dark humor that fueled many the slashers of the era. One favors the subtle lead-in to the bloody spectacle, while the other starts with a crossbow bolt to the brain and never looks back.
Thank goodness this is a world where I have the capacity to appreciate both. You’re Next may not reach the chill factor of its contemporaries, but as a bloody excellent time with a movie it’s hard to top. Wingard borrows a bit of the old Raimi dark magic and blurs it with more overt ‘80s slasher tropes while maintaining a great sense of humor through pitch-perfect characterization. His film may not have the zip of its forebears, but when it hits those manic highs I was thrilled by the carnage on display.
You’re Next tips its hand at a more self-knowing tone as it opens on a pretty girl looking bored beyond belief as she has sex with a slightly lumpy man. She looked as interested in the motion as I was watching it, initially giving the impression that this might be a film that is aware of the tropes but uninterested in doing anything with them. Those fears weren’t set aside as this couple is murdered by someone in an animal mask, but as soon as we’re introduced to our heroine Erin (Sharni Vinson) everything takes a turn for the better.
Erin is meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time as they gather together to celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary. Everyone seems to have a nervous disorder built through constant passive-aggression that expresses itself in different ways. It’s a fun diversion from what looks to be a standard slasher and I could easily have seen it becoming a dark family comedy if the murders didn’t start. Key, but not immediately so, is Erin’s reserve of patience and humor while the mom is crying in the driveway – because when the killing starts she becomes a bastion of confidence and strength. Vinson makes the great decision of playing the material straight as Erin understands that there are lives at stake here that everyone enjoys playing with a bit too much.
The masked killers descend on the home, quickly picking off the family, while Erin tries to hold everything together. Sharni Vinson plays her like the stronger descendant of the “last girl” who always survives slashers. She’s framed more like the killers in movement and relation to her surroundings, a pillar of strength that hunts down their attackers instead of killing innocents. If the framing isn’t enough, her assaults are punctuated by a synth score that could be a jaunty composition by John Carpenter. It may be a bit too on point, but the music combined with her confidence and Wingard’s shots is undeniably cool.
This modern girl reclaiming ‘80s structure extends to her relation to the rest of the family and the attackers. It’s made explicitly clear that Erin disapproves of the kind of predatory capitalism that burst out of America in the ‘80s and made a comeback just to collapse the economy at the dawn of the new millennium. I admit this makes her stand a bit more satisfying as the family and attackers snipe at each other while she picks off their values and their lives.
Part of that satisfaction comes from just how much fun Wingard has staging the attacks. They range from the unexpected, like a piano wire hung at just the right height to catch fleeing victims – to the hilariously brutal, like the way one brother meets his end after withstanding a surprising amount of screwdrivers to the chest. The screenplay, by Simon Barrett, has similar fun by having the many bloodied participants react to these events with detachment that's as oblivious to pain as it is true (key line, "How were we supposed to know you're really good at killing people? Which is weird - by the way.")
You're Next is just a solid entertainment through and through. There's enough creativity and zest in the slashing to keep your average horror fan engaged, and for those looking for a nuance the material is filled with nasty zings. Chekhov's gun doesn't apply just to firearms, but axes too.
Directed by Adam Wingard.
Screenplay written by Simon Barrett.
Starring Sharni Vinson.