Before most of the chaos erupts in the sparse, but brutally clever, horror outing You’re Next (2011), you know everyone is, more or less, irrevocably screwed. The film’s trailer is portentously set to a lesser known, quixotic Lou Reed B-Side, “Perfect Day” (and if fans of ruthless horror have learned anything from films like The Last House on the Left, it’s that absolutely nothing good comes from campy pop music playing), and features a family of very hunky-dory WASPs who all look like the immaculate conceptions of L.L. Bean’s light-ware collection (again: when have crisply dressed yuppies ever done or been on the receiving end of anything short of utter depravity?) celebrating one another (honestly, have you learned nothing?), only to have their domestic bliss spoiled by menacing figures with crossbows, generally wreaking havoc. You’re Next’s promotional posters are ghoulish images of the aforementioned menacing folks looming in a door frame, eclipsed by the titular warning etched in sanguine letters. Most critically? Those menacing figures manically torturing the family in question are adorned in soul-devouringly eyeless sheep masks. Only the foulest of nightmares are made by villains in animal masks.
All that is to say, we know this family of L.L. Beans (or the Davisons as they are known throughout the film) are screwed. But what is so refreshingly surprising about You’re Next is that around twenty or so minutes into the film’s action, when the first familial blood is drawn, you realize how deliciously clever and snarky the teller of these poor souls’ fates truly is. It is a moment that, in the trailer for the film, is used for terror—and, undoubtedly, it is a scene meant to unnerve and petrify—but within the film, is played out in the diegesis as one of the winking moments of intertextual gallows humor that sets the tone for the movie. Tariq, a visiting boyfriend of one of the sisters, clearly the outsider in his faux-bohemian garb and clearly non-Protestant features, explains to the family of Kennedy knock-offs that he is an independent film director, though he has only directed one short film for an underground film fest. Utterly baffled by this, the oafish brothers of the Davison clan scoff and continue to ask Tariq if he’s ever made any commercials, because those are really the most entertaining examples of film to them. Amusing in its own right, this exchange is augmented by the fact that Tariq is played by Ti West, the adulated Indie horror director responsible for The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), therein making the next few frames that culminate in Tariq’s swift execution (an arrow through the temple revealed graphically in the original trailers) all the more sinisterly entertaining.
And this is the core of the brilliance of You’re Next—it is devious wit insidiously nestled in a layer of genuinely disturbing, profoundly effective terror. Directed with meticulous pacing and nostalgic flare by up-and-coming suspense golden boy Adam Wingard (The Guest), the film relies on a snark and cleverness that are so effective and divinely subtle partially because the film unfolds in such a programmatic horror-movie fashion. Opening with the trope of establishing an existing threat—a couple, robustly copulating, miss the sheep mask-clad murderers entering their home, only to be butchered to Dwight Twilley’s mind-numbing “Looking for the Magic” (perhaps the best use of soundtrack since that distressing Gillian Welch moment in 2008’s The Strangers)—the film focuses on a floundering academic brother, Crispin (A.J. Bowen) and his former-student girlfriend Erin (the utterly astounding Sharni Vinson) as they travel to a potentially tempestuous family reunion (Crispin ominously warns of its strangeness) to meet Crispin’s uber-masculine brothers, his twee and needy sisters, and his mentally unsound mother. You’re Next sets up all the gimmicky ploys—Crispin’s family is tremendously wealthy (which, craftily, Erin mentions in a coy manner on the drive); the mother is clearly imbalanced and has a meltdown within the first few moments of her being on screen; each sibling has a significant other of dubious morals and intentions, etc.—only to dismantle and disregard each trope.
Maintaining a savage quality of intertextuality, You’re Next features a cast stacked with mumblecore/gore gurus (notably A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg), and much of the film’s sickening appeal is in how these characters are mercilessly and inventively tormented, all while the film continues tongue-in-bloodied-cheek to give us the generic middle finger. The film simultaneously operates as an homage to the visceral tradition of home invasion horror. As the family gets stalked, tormented and picked off, there is the delightfully aching, rising awareness that You’re Next is systematically killing off the trappings of a genre that has been too ensconced in its own nonsense for years.
And perhaps the most rewarding element throughout the entirety of You’re Next is the extraordinary inversion of the female protagonist, Erin. Many of the more delectable—albeit vicious—moments of the film give far too much away, but it spoils nothing to sing the praises of Sharni Vinson’s silent, intelligent resilience in a film that, were it in other hands, would have facilely relegated her to a role in which she was maligned, usurped, cheapened, or appropriated. Rather, much like the sneering humor and intertextual spark that ignites the film, Erin is played with creeping ingenuity and gradually reveals pieces of herself—most fantastically when she nonchalantly reveals being raised on a survivalist commune, a fact even her boyfriend is unaware of—in such a manner that does not allow her to be objectified by the men of the film, the violence of the film, or even the audience of the film. Erin is steadfast in her clever fortitude, and never succumbs to a “final girl” coquettishness or peril. Moreover, her violence is never eroticized or made into some form of watchable “otherness”—she is brutal and vengeful not for pleasure or voyeurism, she is so because that is her essence.
To divulge much more of You’re Next would be to cheapen the experience. There are masterful moments of carnality that dichotomously eviscerate the viewer’s emotions and, yet, simultaneously, maintain a humor and smugness that is a heinous gift to a dedicated horror watcher. You’re Next is a coalescing of humor and diligent homage that genuinely disturbs, perhaps often because of the sneaking laughs it wedges under the tactfully used garrote wire. And if you were ever in need of alternate uses for a blender, You’re Next will be worth sticking around just for the frenetic denouement.