It’s one thing to make a film that plays to a horror audience, but it’s much harder to make a film that can satisfy the hardcore genre fans while also playing to a broader audience that doesn’t necessarily know and love the genre. When a filmmaker does that, they’ve got something special, something that distributors spend their year looking for. With the right trailer, “You’re Next” could easily be that sort of breakout for the right distributor. It’s a small film with a big hook, and it’s very smart about the way it tweaks the audience as they take the ride.
Director Adam Wingard has been working on the fringes of the fringes for a while now. His movie “Pop Skull” is about as far from commercial formula as you can possibly imagine. I like Wingard’s voice as a filmmaker precisely because it felt like he had to make these movies, like they were personal and essential to him and there was no thought at all of tailoring them for an audience. With his last film, though, working with screenwriter Simon Barrett, it felt like a different skill set snapped into focus, and “A Horrible Way To Die,” while still difficult and dark and dangerous, felt more like a “real” movie than anything he’d done before.
WIth “You’re Next,” Wingard and Barrett have created a wicked little rollercoaster, and like a rollercoaster, it starts a little slow, cranking up that first hill, setting some characters into orbit around one another, so that when we reach that first plateau and we realize what the game is that we’ll be playing, we have just enough of a moment to think, “Oh, this is going to be crazy,” and then we’re off and running. And sure enough, the film is very clever about the way it keeps paying off its premise right down to the very last beat of the movie. It is a case where the cast all works well, the film has a great sense of kinetic energy to it as well as a strong sense of mood, and the script is more than just a laundry list of ways to kill people.
The film opens with Crispian (A.J. Bowen) and his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) on their way to the country house that his parents (Rob Moran and “Re-Animator” icon Barbara Crampton) own for a family party to celebrate his parents’ anniversary. Crispian warns his girlfriend that he doesn’t always get along with his siblings, and that it’s been a while since they’ve all been in the same place, so things could get a little tense. What they don’t realize is that the only neighbors they have in this remote locations were brutally murdered in the opening teaser of the film by mysterious figures, and that they’re not alone in that big country house. There is a game being played, but by who, and why?
Unlike “The Strangers,” this movie has more to offer than just mayhem, and as soon as it gets the rest of the ensemble cast, including Wendy Glenn and Amy Seimetz and directors Ti West and Joe Swanberg, into place, a volley of arrows comes in through a window, killing one of the guests immediately. Right away, Wingard and Barrett start ratcheting things up, and at first, it looks like this is going to be a cat-and-mouse where normal people try to survive an extreme situation. The thing is, there’s one person at the party who has their own secret, and when things turn deadly, they step up, revealing that they are not about to be a victim for anyone. The people behind the violence aren’t prepared for the level of resistance they encounter, and it’s pretty clear that this is going to be a real contest.
I can’t really discuss anything beyond that because the film is fiendishly clever in the way it springs its various surprises, and the cast manages to make this feel legitimately life-and-death, but also keeps it light and funny. Wingard navigates some tricky shifts in tone, and he does with the assurance of a much more experienced commercial filmmaker. There’s gore in the film, but it’s fun. It’s big and cartoony and shouldn’t be a problem for a general audience. The film offers an emotionally satisfying second half that features lots of great reversals, and they manage to make you wonder up till the last moment whether our heroes will be able to survive this funhouse from hell, and even who our heroes really are.
Technically, the film wears its budget proudly. This isn’t a big giant slick movie, but it makes great use of location, and there’s a lean sort of hunger to the filmmaking that makes the budget work in its favor. You get the feeling there’s not a wasted shot in this thing. Like “Scream,” an obvious precursor to this one, there’s a knowledge of the genre that informs the choices that have been made here. In some ways, the film plays right to expectations, but in some very key, smart ways, they’ve twisted and bent the formula just enough to keep even the most jaded viewer guessing at what they’re doing.
If I were a betting man, I’d put a little money down on the notion that you’ll get to see this one sooner rather than later, and in a real theater. A little bit of post-production sweetening to smooth off some of the rough technical edges could help, and this could be a lovely small-scale sensation. It doesn’t have to be a $250 million grossing behemoth to be a hit, and word of mouth could give this thing a long tail with genre fans.
Here’s hoping “You’re Next” gets its chance with a general audience, because the rewards could be spectacular for all involved.