Adam Wingard’s You’re Next was a huge hit on the festival circuit in 2011 when it was picked up for distribution for Lionsgate, who promptly confused hardcore horror fans anxiously awaiting the film by announcing an August 2013 release date. As far as inexplicable movie studio maneuvers go, this is about as confounding as they get. However, maybe Lionsgate was just waiting for the Saw franchise to close up shop and the new Halloween box-office king Paranormal Activity to fall off. If that was the plan, they nailed it. This is the first year since 2008 that the Fall horror schedule is clear of a Paranormal Activity entry, seemingly leaving the door wide open for something new. And even after sitting on the shelf for two years, You’re Next certainly feels like something new: a funny, intense horror film that takes the time to create interesting characters and relationships between them. And then lets most of them get massacred in graphic and sometimes novel ways.
Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary by inviting all of their children to their remote country home. Crispian (AJ Bowen), a professor, and his young girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) arrive early, followed the next day by the rest of the siblings and their significant others: smug Drake (Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Sarah Myers), youngest son Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his bored girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn), and their sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz) and her documentary filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (Ti West). It doesn’t take long for Drake’s baiting of Crispian to explode into an all-out war at the dinner table, although that tiff is quickly forgotten when one of the guests gets an arrow through the forehead and the whole family finds themselves hitting the floor to avoid a barrage of arrows coming through the dining room windows.
After the initial panic, the family manages to move to a more central area of the house and tries to figure out why they’re being attacked, but they don’t have much time to wonder before the black-clad murderers (all wearing animal masks) efficiently pick off several of the remaining family members until only a few are left to survive the night. However, one of the family members has a secret that makes her just as much a threat to the killers as they are to her, and the unexpected presence of a competent, level-headed person in the midst of all this mayhem means the killers’ work won’t be as simple as they may have anticipated. As the night drags on and the body count rises, the survivors find that even among themselves, not everyone is who they seem to be.
You’re Next starts with the foundation of a pitch-perfect cast: Joe Swanberg in particular steals nearly every scene he’s in, clearly itching to start a fight with his sensitive brother Crispian and eager one-up (or just be condescending to) anyone else around. However, this is unquestionably Sharni Vinson’s show. As Erin, she’s sweet, tough, and convincingly badass when needed, and just as convincingly worried or frightened when called for. Writer Simon Barrett even makes it a point to give the animal-masked killers their own stories and motivations, rather than leave them as faceless killing machines. The careful characterization pays off once the action ramps up, and the film strikes a fragile balance between tension and comedy (although at least one scene veers a little to hard into splatstick compared to the rest of the film). There is not much that is really new here, but when the attention to character is so well-done–especially in a modern genre film–it feels almost revolutionary. Whether it actually is or not is beside the point. The fact is that You’re Next is the first post-Cabin in the Woods slasher/home invasion horror film that feels truly modern rather than a tired throwback to the same genre tropes that film so brilliantly, concretely declared as obsolete. It’s impossible for any film to realistically live up to two years of festival hype, but You’re Next comes damned close.