|By Preston Wilder|
Here’s an important bit of info about You’re Next: it gets better as it goes along, leaving the audience unexpectedly exhilarated. Here’s another bit of info: it’s an indie horror movie, made outside the big-studio system, its cast including a couple of well-known low-budget filmmakers in Ti West and Joe Swanberg. This, admittedly, isn’t so important, because filmgoing isn’t a charity: you’re not going to watch something mediocre just to support some ‘alternative’ clique. I only mention it to make clear that the film’s quirky aspects – the parts that look like mistakes – are in fact supposed to be that way.
Chief among the seemingly wrong parts is the first half-hour, which – after a bloody prologue where a couple get post-coitally slaughtered by masked invaders – settles down to the family dynamics of the Davison clan: four grown-up children plus parents Paul and Aubrey, celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in a remote country house. Every horror film has a deceptively placid set-up, of course, and we get the inevitable hints of things to come (Aubrey, who’s on medication and a bit hysterical, thinks she hears footsteps upstairs), but the rhythm seems more thoughtful than usual, the actual relationships between the characters – who are all potential slasher-fodder – not so perfunctory. Messrs. Swanberg and West even share an in-jokey film discussion at the dinner table, one of them championing commercials while the other talks of having sent his film to “an intellectual film festival”.
For a while you wonder if director Adam Wingard can really deliver the goods. The deliberately washed-out video colours, country-house setting and dysfunctional-family bickering call to mind Festen (a.k.a. The Celebration), the Danish Dogme movie from 15 years ago, more than they do Hollywood horror. It’s true that You’re Next isn’t terribly stylish (unlike Wingard’s previous film, A Horrible Way to Die), nor is it really very clever: it doesn’t go for Cabin in the Woods-type post-modernism, commenting on its own generic slasher plot. As the film unfolds, however, one increasingly feels that Wingard and Co. know exactly what they’re doing, which is to find the elusive sweet-spot between (dry) comedy and horror and create a film that’s confident, pacy and unusually honest, almost retro in its no-frills directness. And it’s also – far from being a Danish Dogme movie – gleefully bloody.
I say ‘horror’ but in fact this is more of a home-invasion thriller – with a twist halfway through, which I won’t spoil except to note that it veers away from the despairing template of Funny Games or The Strangers (another film where the invaders wore masks), those bleak hopeless nightmares where a middle-class family were lambs to the slaughter. In short, our heroes fight back (or some of them do), which is mostly why You’re Next is so exhilarating. It doesn’t feel cynical, like so many horrors. Despite its graphic murders and ridiculously high body-count, it doesn’t have a mean bone in its body.
I’m not enough of a connoisseur to catch all the horror-movie references, but Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) is apparently in there – and of course the woman-fights-back motif is a cherished convention of 70s and 80s exploitation, and of course characters getting killed one by one goes all the way back to Agatha Christie. There’s a fondness for cheesy detail, like the bit where our heroine peeks through a keyhole and sees another eyeball – the killer! – staring back at her. There are moments of comedy. And it never loses sight of the family tensions of the first half-hour either, as for instance when talk of making a run for it devolves into an argument over who’s the fastest runner, or the bit where one sibling kills another and finds it quite embarrassing: “Would you just die already? This is hard enough for me!”.
You’re Next feels like it was made by horror fans for horror fans (which may be why it flopped with the mass audience). The ideal viewer will give an appreciative chuckle at the very 80s burst of synthesizers in the final stretch, or when Paul and Aubrey leave the bedroom – he having quelled her hysterical fears with good logical arguments – and a closet door creaks open ever so slightly. This is well-worked genre fun with a smart ear for nuance, though part of me (a part I’m not very proud of) wishes they’d somehow found a way to end it with one of the characters yelling ‘You’re next!’ at the camera. It’s that kind of movie.
DIRECTED BY Adam Wingard
STARRING Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg
US 2011 94 mins