You’re Next, the new independent family drama/ darkly comic slasher film directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barret, opens the way many a slasher film opens: a couple engaging in voracious lovemaking. Of course, since this is a film with a slasher exterior and an indie drama heart, it’s an act in which one-half of its participants looks bored and despondent. Alas, the slasher film doesn’t dictate you have good sex before you’re hacked to bits. Even mediocre sex is enough to equal death, and sure enough, soon the couple is leaking blood onto their fancy, white carpet before the title can appear onscreen.
We then cut to a different house with a different set of characters and spend the next twenty or so minutes wondering if we watched the opening of an entirely different film. Clearly the film we’re now watching is more about wealthy, unlikable characters doing wealthy, unlikable things. Our central characters seem to be Crispian, who’s enduring some financial hardship, and his Australian girlfriend, Erin (A.J. Bowen and Sharni Vinson), another, much happier couple, driving out to a giant house in a woodsy, middle of nowhere area.
It’s Crispian’s parents’ vacation home, and the whole family is gathering for their 35th anniversary. The house is the kind of house, what with its dark, ominous windows and near-totally isolated locale, practically has a sign posted that says, “You’re welcome to come inside, but you’ll leave horizontal and pulseless.”
Cast wise, besides Crispian and Erin, we’ve got the parents, Aubrey and Paul (Barbara Crampton and Rob Moran), their son, Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his cynical, goth girlfriend (you can tell she’s cynical and goth, because she smokes, constantly rolls her eyes, and adorns said eyes in thick, black liner), Zee (Wendy Glenn), the perky, eager to please daughter, Aimee (Amy Seimetz) and her documentary filmmaker boyfriend, Tariq (horror filmmaker Ti West), and the douchiest of douchey characters, oldest son, Drake (Joe Swanberg) and his wife, Kelly (Margaret Laney).
The prominently displayed family photo, showing everyone standing or sitting slightly too far apart from one another pretty much sums up this family’s intimacy.
Eventually, they all sit down to an elegant dinner in their window-adorned dining room.
Alas, a mass argument breaks out, and only stops because one of the diners gets an arrow through the forehead (although even that takes a few seconds to be noticed). After that, the film becomes an awkward blend of Straw Dogs, The Strangers, and Rachel Getting Married. After all, why should a brutal outside assault do anything to halt petty, family grievances?
About twelve hours removed from the viewing of You’re Next, I find myself conflicted as to how best to evaluate it. It’s a well-made, well-photographed, with a competent cast, an interesting genre-blending, and some well-executed (no pun intended) kills. However, for much of its running time, I found myself thinking, “Why am I not liking this film more?” I love the horror genre and have a certain affection for a well-made mumblecore film, so this film seems tailor-made for me.
During the film’s first few scenes, you wouldn’t be remiss in believing you were watching an indie family drama with a horror film threatening to rear its ugly head around the edges of the film’s narrative. You’ve got a foreboding, middle of nowhere house and cast of disposable characters, except its indie pedigree means that instead of young, toned teenagers in jean shorts and bikinis, we have older adults in elbow-patched blazers, elegant dress slacks, billowy cardigans, and sensitive men with neatly trimmed beards. It’s almost as though an indie drama cast wandered onto the wrong film set and paid the ultimate price, as doled out by killers sporting masks that make them both wolves in sheep’s clothing and wolves in wolves’ clothing.
I wanted to like this film, and there were points when I did like it. Alas, just as often, I found myself wanting to like it more than I did. It plays best when its dark comedy inclinations shift to the surface and share the spotlight with its slasher film leanings. Its best moments involve the family squabbles that exemplify the mumblecore genre, despite the fact that killers are waiting on the other side of a door, or homicides are carried out by characters discussing their own petty issues. These are the moments when the slasher-mumblecore blending work best.
However, the problem with blending these two genres is that the film has characters who are unlikable enough that you aren’t rooting for them to survive, but not so unlikable that you’re actively rooting for their demises. For much of its running time, it fails to engage on any level, and seems nastier and more nihilistic as a result. As a result, you spend nearly two hours simply watching events unfold onscreen because they’re there, and wishing you were doing something better with your time.
As the film goes on and a twisty loyalty shift occurs, a certain character begins to exhibit certain previously un-hinted at skills, the film gives you a character to get behind, but it takes a long time to get to that point.
This summer has given us two horror films that have received favorable reviews: You’re Next and James Wan’s The Conjuring. I massively preferred The Conjuring to You’re Next, and the reason has to do with the nature of the film experience. The Conjuring felt like a roller coast ride, and You’re Next felt like a trek through a geek show. One leaves you feeling elated, the other leaves you kinda beaten down. I’m not saying You’re Next is bad, and while I admire its attempt to do something different with the horror genre (not to mention it deadly, novel use of a blender), I can’t say I spent the majority of the film’s running time happy I was watching it.