Halloween Horror: You're Next (2011)

I’m sure there are plenty of viewers who’ll get a kick out of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, but I was turned off by its mix of ironic shoddiness and horrific bloodlust. In some ways I couldn’t take the film any more seriously than an episode of Scooby-Doo, with all the half-baked revelations, poor motivations, and lazy caricatures typical of that children’s cartoon. Perhaps this is the point of the film, that the way it plays with horror conventions and stereotypes is meant to show just how lazy the horror genre has gotten. But even if that is the case, bad acting is bad acting and I find little cleverness is pointing out a genre’s limitations while embracing those very limitations. Adam Wingard may understand horror movies, and have a visual knack to boot, but his talent does him little service here.

You’re Next operates in two sub-genres simultaneously. It’s a family reunion drama, with all the festering resentments and family arguments that you’d expect in such films, as well as a home invasion drama, where evil men in animal masks enter the house and kill the victims with crossbows and machetes. The film’s lead, or Last Girl if you’re using horror movie terminology, is Erin (Sharni Vinson), a shy literature student dating her erstwhile professor, Crispian (A. J. Bowen). Crispian brings her along to his family’s reunion at their vacation home, a vast mansion in a remote rural area, and when everyone gathers for dinner, men in animal masks start killing the family members one by one.

Of course, there are some quick revelations about the motivations for these sick killers terrorizing this unpleasant family. We also learn that Erin is seriously good at killing people. While the helpless family members die one by one, Erin kicks into action, rigging booby traps and arming herself with items like a kitchen mallet, and goes about dispatching the masked men. This is where You’re Next succeeds as it’s fun watching the typically-docile female victim kick ass. But then the film ups the carnage and delves into possible sadism.

The family members weren’t pleasant people to begin with and they only become more despicable as the situation intensifies. Wingard and writer Simon Barrett clearly want us to relish their deaths, as they’re killed in creative and darkly comic ways. For example, a piece of piano wire detaching a person’s head plays like a Looney Tunes gag, and Joe Swanberg’s Drake seems incapable of dying, no matter how many times he’s stabbed and shot with arrows.

It doesn’t help the film that all the actors are mumblecore veterans and so speak their lines without conviction or nuance. When Erin inevitably reveals the reasons for her uncanny ability to kill other people, I couldn’t tell whether the film was playing with the convention of the emotional reveal or just telling a trite story poorly. Can an actor playing a character who is a bad actor be accused of bad acting? Perhaps not, but it’s not enjoyable regardless.

I don’t mind films relishing the violence they depict, but Wingard seems to think his film is being ironic in how it portrays its violence. In actuality he’s just reveling in the killing of unpleasant individuals in gruesome ways. There’s nothing scary about You’re Next and the elements that are meant to be clever I found troubling. I like horror films. I like films that are clever in their violence. But I expect a film that has this much violence and this much black humour to have something more to say than the cinematic equivalent of a gamer yelling “Nice kill, bro!” to his buddy when playing a round of Left 4 Dead.

4 out of 10

You’re Next (2011, USA)

Directed by Adam Wingard; written by Simon Barrett; starring Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, A. J. Bowen, and Joe Swanberg.