I think that you can't actually spoil a good movie, but I also know that many people think that spoilers are rude. This is a dilemma when I'm confronted by a movie like You're Next (2011, directed by Adam Wingard), because many of its pleasures are built around surprising the audience and picking it apart to demonstrate how it works is a bit like dissecting the golden goose. The fact that it does work is also a surprise in itself, given that director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett's previous films have sometimes felt like shambolic, kit-bashed affairs, and this one is constructed like a watch.
Note: I'll try to avoid spoiling the film, but I may not completely manage. You've been warned.
The film opens, Scream-like, with a prelude, in which a middle-aged man and his college student girlfriend are in mid-tryst. He gets up to go to the shower and when he returns to her, he finds the words "You're Next!" scrawled in blood on the glass door, with her dead body on the other side. Behind him is an intruder wearing an animal mask and wielding a machete. The focus then shifts to Paul and Aubrey, a couple just settling in to Paul's retirement from a lucrative job in defense contracting. They've organized a family gathering at their new fix her up house deep in the woods. The only neighbor anywhere near is Erik, who Paul notes is having an affair with a college student. Once at the house, Aubrey is convinced that there's someone in the house after hearing sinister noises from upstairs. Paul investigates and judges the house empty. Paul and Aubrey have a large family, and their children all have significant others in tow. The first to arrive are Crispian and his girlfriend/ex-student, Erin, followed in their turn by Felix, Drake, Aimee, etc. As they sit down to dinner, Aimee's boyfriend, Tariq, is shot with a crossbow bolt through the window. Soon the family finds itself under siege, as invaders in animal masks pick them off one by one. Meanwhile, Erin begins to formulate ways to strike back, much to the surprise of the family and to their attackers. She's surprisingly lethal...
This is obviously a variant on the recent rash of home invasion films like Them, The Strangers, and Funny Games. This posits a less passive set of victims, though, and this turns into more of a siege narrative than other films of its type, or maybe takes it back to earlier forms like Straw Dogs. This is definitely a film about regeneration through violence. The key to this is Erin (Sharni Vinson), who is an active heroine in the best tradition of Ellen Ripley. The film gives her a backstory to explain her competence (she was raised in a survivalist compound) that would be ridiculous if the film itself weren't so over the top. This is a funny film, one that subverts its subgenre at every turn, with the invaders being just as incompetent in their way as their victims. This provides a recipe for some slapstick gore. The film also subverts the subgenre in its choice of villains and their motives, but that's one of the film's hidden pleasures.
As a formal object, this is a much more accomplished film than I'm used to from Wingard. Wingard and his collaborators come from the mumblecore tradition of DIY filmmaking, and there's still an element to this. There aren't many shots in this film that aren't hand-held, but unlike, say, A Horrible Way to Die, there isn't a sense of the camera wandering through the frame looking for a composition. Wingard even indulges in a couple of stylistic flourishes that move beyond his filmmaking roots. There are a couple of slow tracking shots in this film, and a couple of instances of slow motion. The expanded range of techniques makes for a much more watchable film. Also making for a more watchable film is the closer connection to genre. I admit to having warm feelings for the film once I saw that Erik, the film's unfortunate neighbor, was Larry Fessenden, and I was grinning when Aubrey turned out to be Barbara Crampton. This isn't an in-jokey movie, really, but the casting forges a connection none the less. And, as I say, this hums along like clockwork. The ending of the movie is predicated on an earlier scene in which Erin booby traps the house, and the filmmakers tease and tease and tease this until the very last shot of the movie. There's a fine level of patience in this that gives the film a terrific punch line.
I've been complaining all year about how the dominant theme of contemporary horror movies seems to be the nuclear family under threat, and this is another film that chooses that theme, in a literal way. You're Next critiques this tradition, though. It explicitly refers to its family as "fascist," a judgement in the text of the film on the way Paul and Aubrey have accumulated their wealth, but also suggestive of its view of family in general. Family, in this film's worldview, is a microcosm of a cutthroat universe, where you get ahead over the bodies of those around you. This is the horror film at its most subversive, and I'm happy to see it.
It's not all fun and games, though. The plot twists at the end are contingent on Erin's super-competence, and while I appreciate that competence, I question the need for her back story. It strains the credibility and briefly took me out of the film. I'm also starting to hate cell phones, because their very existence is forcing horror filmmakers to account for them in their plots. This isn't the fault of these filmmakers, really, but their solution to the problem is...inelegant. It's one of the parts of the film where the wheels of the plot show through as exactly that.
Still and all, there's a gore set piece near the end involving a blender that's wonderfully outrageous, and there's that punch line I mentioned earlier, so I had a good time watching You're Next, warts and all. Indeed, I headed to the parking lot laughing my ass off. Take that however you like.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 24
First Time Viewings: 20
Note: I'm actually finished with the challenge at this point. It's going to take me a few days to churn through the blog posts, though.
Around the Web:
Fascination with Fear gets into tight spaces to look at claustrophobia in horror movies.
The Celluloid Dreamer bumps off some bodies with Burke and Hare.
Expelled Grey Matter climbs into the Creep Van.
Justin at The Bloody Pit of Horror dives into old school mexican horror with Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los monstruos
Anna at Bemused and Nonplussed calls George Romero's Martin one of her favorite horror films. It's a worthy choice.
Tim at The Other Side goes in for some kaiju mayhem for Halloween with a game-themed look at Godzilla vs. Destroyah.
Happy Halloween, everyone.