The bar of expectations has been set pretty high for You're Next, a film that debuted on the festival circuit in 2011, was lauded as a great new horror film, and then was bought up by Lionsgate - who promptly put it on a shelf for nearly two years. But, now that the film has finally seen a release - a wide release, at that, which already makes this a huge win for independent horror - I'm ecstatic to confirm that there's definitely something special about You're Next.
From the writer/director team of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (who wowed me with the dramatic horror tale A Horrible Way to Die and had their hands in the anthology hit V/H/S), the film tells the story of a large family that meets in a secluded country home to celebrate an anniversary and be systematically killed off by a trio of invaders in animal masks. (They obviously didn't plan for the latter, but it wouldn't be a horror movie if the characters' plans went just right.) When I saw A Horrible Way To Die I noted that these filmmakers managed to bring a fresh approach to the torture-centered horror formula that has been popular of late, thanks to their focus on character and desire to create characters before killing them, and You're Next definitely succeeds in the same way.
The cast is pretty fantastic within Barrett and Wingard's film. It's led, for all intents and purposes, by a young Austrailain actress named Sharni Vinson, who plays the girlfriend of one of the sons and proves to be more than just a pretty face in a crisis. She's surrounded by many friends and associates of the filmmakers, including the same trio that carried A Horrible Way to Die (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, and Amy Seimetz, each of whom has been heavily involved in the independent horror community both in front of and behind the camera), plus two experienced talents as the parents of this clan, Rob Moran and horror icon Barbara Crampton. The fact that so many of the characters have experience directing horror must have made the process easier for all involved, but it's also worth noting that the actors all seem comfortable in their roles and definitely don't take anything away from the film. Small roles by other directors (like The House of the Devil's Ti West and The Last Winter's Larry Fessenden) should make horror nuts smile, and one sequence discussing underground film festivals had me laughing out loud when the character played by Swanberg (who particularly stands out as a performer in the film) dismisses the indie scene at the dinner table.
You're Next isn't exactly a character piece, but it doesn't jump straight into the fire without giving us reasons to think about who these people are and why they're here. We learn little pieces about each character through the family interactions early in the film, and most of these little reveals have an effect on how things play out once the assailants make their move on this family. The initial onslaught from the killers is handled fantastically, and I was shocked or surprised several times once the attack began. There are a few surprising moments of brutality that I think will stand up next to some of the great shocks in horror history, and I even found that the film's "anything goes at any time" approach reminded me of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There are at least four or five moments in the first half of the film that honestly caught me off guard, which four or five more than most horror movies I see can claim.
The intensity is so great throughout the first forty minutes of the film that it's almost a given that there's going to be a slight let down. I won't go in to plot details, but there's definitely a point where a revelation occurs and the tone of the film shifts strongly. That doesn't mean the film loses its edge, but the knowledge that the viewer gains at this point takes a little bit of the unpredictability out of the film. Wingard and Barrett still keep the film moving at a pace that had me on the edge of my seat and still offer plenty of brutal (and sometimes cathartic) violence, which means that the film doesn't really suffer too much. But I couldn't help thinking that the film explained away to much too early, and that there might have been a few more white-knuckle moments if the film hadn't given away a little information.
But the change in tone - which may have just occurred in my head, who am I to tell you what tone you'll get from the film? - is only a minor quibble with the film. The characters that we spend the most time with - particularly Vinson and Bowen - are wonderfully realized and You're Next always keeps us engaged in what's going on. After the early tension and the mid-film action it is a relief that the final scenes seem to sum up everything perfectly, which is just another reason to be impressed by the vision these filmmakers had for their film. Questions in our head get answered, but the film still manages to move on at a pace that kept me anticipating the bloody twist that was going to happen next.
I slept on the movie to collect my thoughts after the late night screening, and all day long I've been grinning about how much fun I had watching this bloody story unfold in front of me. Those who crave horror that is both brutal and intelligent should definitely see this one as soon as possible, and they should also be prepared to look over their shoulder a few times on the way home. You're Next might get under your skin, and if it doesn't I'm willing to bet it will at least give you a few good thrills.