by Tony Dayoub
After a terrifying prologue, You're Next begins with ultra-cute Erin (Sharni Vinson) and her pudgy boyfriend Crispian (AJ Bowen) on their way to a weekend at his parents' secluded vacation home. They're to join a family reunion to celebrate Mom and Dad's anniversary. The conversation in the car is about what you'd expect. Erin asks if Crispian's parents are as "loaded" as she's heard. A visibly nervous Crispian admits this is true. But what's really creating the unspoken tension is Crispian's reticence for Erin to meet his complicated family. Who hasn't been in that situation? "What's wrong with them?" Erin asks. After a moment of silence that lasts for what seems like eons, Crispian says two words.
No kidding. If it's not Crispian's anxiety-ridden mother Aubrey (the still stunning 80s scream queen Barbara Crampton) appeased by (perhaps deliberately) oblivious dad Paul (Rob Moran) then it's douchey older brother Drake (douchey mumblecore filmmaker Joe Swanberg) all finding ways to ratchet up the understandable stress between new couple Crispian and Erin. Drake searches for Vicodin to dull the acute discomfort of spending a weekend with his large, quirky family. His wife Kelly (Margaret Laney) comments privately on whether Erin might be another student that college prof Crispian might be taking advantage of. Baby brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) shows up with a chilly goth girlfriend, Zee (Wendy Glenn). "Z?" his mother asks. "That's Z-E-E," says Felix. Younger sister Aimee (director Amy Seimetz) brings fiancé Tariq (director Ti West), a documentary filmmaker who hasn't screened anything publicly since a 2006 underground film festival. "Underground," Drake asks Tariq. "What does that mean? It's literally shown under the ground?"
Drake's needling quite literally sets the table for what's to come. The increasingly dysfunctional dynamics of this family finally boil over into a screaming match at Aubrey and Paul's anniversary dinner thanks to Drake's perpetual pot-stirring. He pointedly asks Erin if she was a student of Crispian's which provokes him into a standoff with his bullying brother. Frazzled mom tries to play peacemaker. Aimee jumps in to give Drake his lumps for poking fun at Tariq with Kelly defending her husband. All of this while the detached Felix and Zee look on alongside a stunned Erin. No Crispian wasn't kidding about his family. But though this melee might have been what he was referring to when Crispian warned Erin "You'll see," he could just as easily have been referring to the bloodbath that is soon to follow.
As alluded to earlier in reference to the prologue, strangers wearing animal masks murdered some neighbors nearby and have now begun to inexplicably stalk this family. In other recent horror films of this kind, an imaginary collegiality springs up when a large group start being killed off. Tensions seem to evaporate as potential victims work together to turn the tables on their tormentors. Not in You're Next, where an arrow suddenly and unexpectedly burrowing into the head of one of the dinner guests justifiably prompts terror and, maybe less justifiably, sparks more distrust. Director Adam Wingard (Autoerotic) throws his audience off-balance from the outset. At first, claustrophobic close-ups are meant to heighten the sense of inescapability from the confines of the dour family reunion. Later, as Crispian's family and their respective loved ones are being killed off by their assailants, the tight shots are intended to make each violent intrusion a jumpy surprise.
The do-it-yourself synth-inflected score and casting of horror actors, filmmakers, and fans will tickle any fright fans who know their John Carpenter from their Stuart Gordon. But ultimately You're Next succeeds at terrorizing viewers, well-versed in horror flicks or not, because the thriller knows how to play with tried and true hallmarks of its genre to come up with something new. You're Next is by turns brutal, clever and absurd. But in a genre that goes through long periods of inertia, it's a welcome change to find that You're Next is also ruthlessly inventive in executing its scares.