Friday, August 23, 2013

In Theaters: YOU'RE NEXT (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Adam Wingard.  Written by Simon Barrett.  Cast: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Rob Moran, Barbara Crampton, Sarah Myers, Ti West, L.C. Holt, Simon Barrett, Larry Fessenden, Kate Lyn Sheil. (R, 94 mins)

More than any other film genre, horror makes its fans wade through some real shit to get to the worthy offerings.  It seems like every other week, Fangoria or Dread Central are hyping some must-see game-changer that's ultimately mediocre, forgettable, and populated with the same cast of interchangeable horror-con fixtures and other perpetual C-and-D-listers.  And even the next generation of so-called "great" horror filmmakers mostly seem to be people who are probably a lot of fun to watch horror movies with, but can't resist the urge to get snarky and meta with their own stuff.  And God help you if you think "found footage" is the answer to the horror genre's problems. YOU'RE NEXT is finally getting national distribution nearly two years after it played the film festival circuit.  It's directed by Adam Wingard, whose name is usually bandied about as one of these "future of horror" guys.  He got some acclaim with his 2011 film A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE and was involved in both V/H/S anthologies as well as THE ABCs OF DEATH.  YOU'RE NEXT is easily the defining statement of his career thus far, and if you've suffered through some bad horror movies in recent years, I'm here to tell you that it all pays off with YOU'RE NEXT.

Opening with a couple (the guy is Wendigo-obsessed cult horror director Larry Fessenden) being killed by a figure in a creepy animal mask, YOU'RE NEXT shifts its focus to an isolated mansion a bit further down the road, still in the middle of nowhere.  It's the 35th wedding anniversary of wealthy, retired defense contractor Paul Davison (Rob Moran) and his wife Aubrey (RE-ANIMATOR scream queen Barbara Crampton), and they've invited their children and their significant others to a weekend gathering:  oldest son Drake (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Sarah Myers); college prof son Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his Australian grad student girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson); daughter Aimee (Amy Seimetz), and her "underground documentary filmmaker" boyfriend Tariq (Ti West); and youngest son Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his goth girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn).  There's hints of typical family dysfunction that explode during dinner when the abrasive, insufferable Drake (who tells Tariq he should consider "documentary commercials") keeps prodding the thin-skinned Crispian about a variety of issues (his relationship with Erin starting when he was her professor; how his round face makes him look fat, etc).  The arguing temporarily ceases when one of them notices something outside the window and ends up with a crossbow arrow in their skull.  Quickly realizing they're under siege by at least two or three killers wearing the same animal masks from the opening murder sequence (and one of them is already hiding in the house), the family is picked off one by one in a variety of gruesome ways, with "You're next" scrawled in blood on the wall.  Luckily for the Davisons, Erin happens to have had a crazy dad who raised her in a survivalist compound in the Outback, which immediately establishes her as the most resourceful of the bunch when it comes to outwitting the killers.  Using a variety of impromptu booby-traps that at times bring to mind a stalk-and-slash version of HOME ALONE, Erin proves to be more than the killers were anticipating, but that's only the beginning of the twists to come.

There's several reasons YOU'RE NEXT works as well as it does:  Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (who plays one of the killers) know the clichés of the horror genre and, specifically, the home-invasion subgenre, and don't avoid them, instead using them to maximum advantage.  Wingard knows how to stage suspense sequences and delay reveals in ways that provide the most tension possible.  The film is drawing comparisons to SCREAM, but not in the sense that it's a genre deconstruction, but more in the way that it knows how to use the various standards and expectations that come with the slasher film.  With its inferior sequels and the many self-referential, meta films it spawned, it's easy to forget how fresh and inventive SCREAM was in 1996.  It's been sequeled and copied and parodied so much that it's common to simply dismiss it outright today, but that's not really fair.  It's like blaming PULP FICTION for the flood of Tarantino knockoffs that stunk up the new release sections of video stores throughout the '90s and still occasionally trickle in to this day.  YOU'RE NEXT is this generation's SCREAM primarily in the way it reinvigorates a stagnant genre.  At the same time, Wingard isn't trying to reinvent the wheel: children of the '80s will love the practical splatter effects and the throbbing synth score that sounds like it wandered in from a never-released John Carpenter film. 

Another huge plus working in YOU'RE NEXT's favor:  Barrett's mostly unpredictable script (the one weakness:  when one character vanishes for a long period of screen time, it's obviously for a reason) is also funny without being snarky or condescending.  The characters here never stop to talk about how they're in the middle of a stalk & slash film in an old dark house and they don't have any ironic quips to make about it.  The humor in YOU'RE NEXT ranges from smart to dark to outright absurd: Drake still acting like a complete blowhard asshole even with an arrow sticking out of his shoulder for most of the film; needy Aimee fishing for Daddy's validation even as bodies pile up around them ("I can run fast, but nobody ever believes in me!"  Paul: "I believe in you, Princess!"); Erin getting the edge on one of the killers and smashing his head to a pulp with a hammer, then asking Felix "Do you recognize this guy?"  to which Felix deadpans "It's kinda hard to tell."  The performances generally range from functional to decent--several of the cast members (Swanberg, West, UPSTREAM COLOR star Seimetz) are also writers and directors--but a star is born in Vinson's ballsy turn as the tough-as-shit Erin, instantly staking her claim as one of horror cinema's all-time great Final Girls. 

For horror fans around my age (40), there's a nostalgia for the movies of our youth that shows no signs of abating.  Wingard is in that same demographic.  There's a reason he utilized practical gore and a reason he uses Carpenter-esque music cues (plus the creepy utilization of the Dwight Twilley Band's minor 1977 hit "Looking for the Magic"):  because he's a fan first, he knows what fans want to see and hear.  There's no shitty CGI here.  In fact, when one person is stabbed in the eye, there's some very visible latex.  Latex!  In a horror movie in 2013!  The only concession Wingard seems to make to modern horror from an aesthetic angle is using a lot of shaky hand-held in some sequences, but it's done in a way that's appropriate to the film and not simply shaking the camera around to make things look busy.  The point is this:  it's tough being a horror movie fan today.  We long for things as good as the influential classics of our past (of course, everyone thinks "their" stuff was the best, just like our parents thought most of the '80s stuff was too over-the-top) and most of today's horror movies just aren't fun.  There's something missing and YOU'RE NEXT is as close as I've seen in a long time to getting it back.  They just don't make 'em like this anymore.  For once, a buzzed-about horror flick lives up to the hype, and if this came out 25 or 30 years ago, it would be a film that we're still talking about today.  I'm sure there'll be no shortage of nitpicky, cynical contrarians who just can't allow themselves to enjoy the hell out of this thing that gives them exactly the kind of entertaining, old-school jolts that they want, but it's the most fun I've had with a horror movie in ages.

1 comment:

  1. I got so caught up in the film that I forgot about the character who disappears. Perhaps that was the filmmakers' strategy.