In the cases of “The Cabin in the Woods” and the much-anticipated “You’re Next,” both films sat on the shelf for two years before being picked up by Lionsgate. That normally doesn’t bode well for a film, but the former was an inspired revitalization of the horror genre and, now that it’s finally seeing the light of day, the latter is here and it deserves all the fanfare in theaters as it received at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. “You’re Next,” fiercely directed by Adam Wingard and wittily scripted by Simon Barrett (who have been on the horror scene, both collaborating on segments in this year’s “The ABCs of Death” and “V/H/S/2,” as well as its 2012 predecessor “V/H/S”), may look like any old home-invasion horror thriller, having commonalities with 2007′s “Severance,” 2008′s “The Strangers” and the underseen “Baghead,” among others. It has more than enough cues to the original “Halloween,” too, but that doesn’t stop this lean, viciously funny, and thrillingly creepy animal from turning dusty genre tropes inside out with sharp shards of black-as-soot humor.
After the grisly scene is set with a post-coital couple being taken out by masked killers with sharp, pointy objects in the area, Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) and Paul Davison (Rob Moran) are ready to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in their secluded mansion down the road. Son Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his Australian girlfriend Erin (Shari Vinson), a grad student who’s meeting her literature professor boyfriend’s loaded parents for the first time, are the first to arrive. Not soon after the rest of the Davisons’ adult children and their significant others show up, there’s friction between Crispian and his older brother Drake (mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, whose indie effort “Drinking Buddies” sees a limited release the same day), a chatty wiseass with conservative wife Kelly (Sarah Myers) in tow. Then there is the only daughter in the family, daddy’s girl Aimee (“Upstream Color’s” Amy Seimetz), who’s brought along her arthouse filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (horror filmmaker Ti West), and the youngest son, Felix (Nicholas Tucci), and his goth-dressed girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn). Once they’ve all settled in to have a civil dinner, this family reunion of sorts turns into Crispian and Drake needling one another. It takes everyone a while, except for Tariq, to notice an arrow striking through the dining room window. Hysteria breaks out, putting the family under siege with crossbows, machetes, and other sharp weapons. With all the slaughterhouse carnage by three unknown assailants, who will be left standing?
Operating more on the level of a dysfunctional family drama and a really dark comedy with a body count and face-smashing, foot-stabbing booby traps, “You’re Next” simmers with sibling resentments, prickly familial dynamics, and an overall underlying tension, even when the family members and their significant others start dropping like flies. For instance, they bicker over who is the fastest runner, even when one character has already been slain and another is wounded. Though the routine framework is trotted out with upstairs noises and a few jump scares making their rightful appearance, what awaits in “You’re Next” wins points for deceptively and delightfully surpassing the expectations of moviegoers who are well-versed in horror conventions and will think they have it all figured out. There’s no dramatic irony here: you never know where it’s going. Here, the characters aren’t boneheaded teens; they’re boneheaded adults with the blackest of hearts, each and every houseguest never knowing when his and her number will be up. No one is safe from the chopping block and the film becomes a “who’s next” and “who’s the Final Person” game. Without spoiling too much, Erin is a resourceful, take-charge survivor but not immune to injuries, either.
Wingard and Barrett shrewdly show their hand earlier than expected that this is not some random attack and avoid culminating in laborious talking-killer clichés. That the filmmakers are in full command of their straight but playful tone is astonishingly evident, and that give-and-take never lets up as the film unleashes bloody, uncompromising kills and a crowd-pleasing doozy of a plot shift once the jig is up. Speaking of kills, there is a gnarly, creative use of a blender and an applause-worthy beatdown with a meat tenderizer. The intruders’ tiger, lamb, and fox guises also get enough playtime, instantly earning themselves a place in the hall of fame of unnerving horror-movie masks. Aside from an early and brief instance of shaky-cam syndrome, Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography has a down-and-dirty efficiency, along with ruthlessly taut editing going a long way in conveying panic and building dread. A pleasing ’80s synth-heavy score with horns pulsates the balls-to-the-wall action and, in addition, the Dwight Twilley Band’s 1977 pop-rock track “Looking for the Magic” on repeat works so effectively as a devilishly amusing counterpoint.
Receiving her breakout role here (“Step Up 3D” didn’t quite do that), Aussie actress Vinson establishes Erin as a smart, appealing young woman everyone can root for and then convincingly shapes her into a badass female heroine every horror fan will be proud of. “Home Alone’s” Kevin McCallister and feminists should take note. The line-up of actors have so much indie cred that they won’t be instantly recognized by mainstream audiences, but as long as you have your finger on the pulse, it’s a treat to see these people bicker, scream, and get butchered. Genre icon Crampton has been missed since her “Re-Animator” years where she was strapped naked to a morgue table; now, as the medicated matriarch, she gets to lay down traumatized in her bedroom when it’s clear one of the murderers must be in the house. Swanberg is also terrific as the brother who’s always at the other’s throat; his “handling” of an arrow is priceless, as is his condescension toward West’s Tariq when asking about underground filmmaking (“Do you make movies underground?”).
Now, is “You’re Next” the be-all, end-all of horror thrillers? Who knows, but it’s a superior, damned fun bit of work with more than enough replay value. As the chaperones of an unpredictable, adeptly scary/funny entertainment, director Wingard and screenwriter Barrett—by the way, that’s him in the tiger mask—have the wherewithal and an arsenal of inventive ideas to give their genre another new lease of life. They make sure the tension could be cut with a knife and manage slashes and humor without either of them ever displacing the other, so a job well done. If you consider yourself a true-blue horror aficionado, get out of the house and get your body to “You’re Next.”
96 min., rated R.
Grade: A -