Imagine if Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon didn't have the serial killer/tour guide to the world of horror onscreen. Imagine if that same twisted slasher, heavily influenced by the good meta aspects of post-Scream American horror, used the camera as the guide to what's going to happen. The director plays an active role in the story without saying a word. He lets the audience in on the next big scare without spoiling the specifics by letting a scene linger just a little longer than expected to make it clear that bad things will come. You're Next is the brilliant experiment in meta-horror commentary that The Cabin in the Woods was marketed as. It's a home invasion film that is so familiar with the tropes that it can spoil every scare scene (even the ending of the film itself) and still be an effective horror story. It's a film that allows the characters to play ridiculous dialogue and story developments so straight that you can't help but laugh while buckets of blood are pumped onto the floor.
The Davison children reunite at their parents brand new and totally isolated mansion for a wedding anniversary party. Each of the four children bring their love interests to the joy of the retired parents. Everything is going perfectly nice until someone is taken down by a crossbow attack during a huge argument at the dinner table. Now the family is in a fight for their lives against a group of animal-masked invaders bent on taking out the entire Davison clan.
Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett flip the script on home invasion horror with some of the riskiest choices I've seen in years. None of the characters in the film are particularly likable. This includes the survivor girl, the early victims, the villains, and even the police. You pull for the family out of a sense of routine until you realize how terrible every single person in the film is. The villains wind up as the only sympathetic figures in the film in a keen series of plot twists that simultaneously confirm and recontextualize everything you knew about the characters and their lives.
You're Next is not a particularly subtle film. It goes for the jugular, literally, in almost every scene and refuses to let the audience recover. To their credit, Wingard and Barrett create unexpected moments of levity with very blunt dialogue. The characters realistically and succinctly recap what happened in the sprawling mansion for the survivors who weren't present for the latest attack. It's an odd device that works wonders to break the tension in the best way possible.
The film does have a distinct weakness and that is the over-reliance on the last twist. It is the only one with any real misdirection and that makes it stick out like a sore thumb in a story this intentionally transparent. Wingard and Barrett set up You're Next as an elaborate stage illusion. They let the audience in on all the secrets while trying to hide the real magic behind a curtain. The whole thing is just a bit too in your face to let this sleight of hand go unnoticed.
What works so well in an immediate scene really brings down the ending in an unnecessary way. It almost plays like the home video release of Clue, where the alternate endings separated for different theatrical markets are stacked one on top of the other so the audience doesn't know what really happened. Wingard and Barrett set up many possible conclusions to a tricky storyline and commit to the option that goes against the tone and style of the rest of the film.
This is a minor blemish on a very well-made horror film. Composers Mads Heldtberg, Jasper Justice Lee, and Kyle McKinnon craft an oppressive synth score in the style of electronic visionary Wendy Carlos (Tron, A Clockwork Orange). The entire art department, especially production designer Thomas S. Hammock and set decorator Lanie Faith Marie Overton, set up beautiful environments to be destroyed as the chaos unfolds in the film. Director Adam Wingard also acts as editor and his sense of timing is impeccable.
You're Next is the rare horror film that is such a novel and immersive experience that you can overlook major flaws and go along for the ride. It is an incredibly ambitious home invasion story told with the audience in mind. We become conspirators in a very twisted story where we can anticipate every step but never fully predict where the foot lands.
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