Before I get into the meat of this thing, some backstory: You’re Next was made in 2011, then spent two years stuck in development hell. It finally got a brief theatrical release in 2013, following an enthusiastic advertising campaign focused mainly on the scary guys with animal masks. What that—and the trailers—failed to convey is that this is more than a straight-forward home invasion horror film. You’re Next is also funny. Intentionally funny. Darkly funny. The kind of funny where the punch line could turn out to be an axe to the face.
You’re Next (2011):
The Plot: A dysfunctional family has a terrible weekend.
Side-plot: A group of masked killers has a terrible weekend.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that people on the internet love dichotomies. Mac and PC. Liberal and Conservative. Coke and Pepsi. Paul Dano and people who don’t need to be slapped all the time. How many jokes and platitudes have we gotten from the phrase “there are two types of people…?” Like, at least a thousand, which, this author would argue, is not enough. So here, for all I know, is number one thousand and one: There are two types of horror movies: The ones that scare you, and the ones that entertain you by having people die in interesting ways. You’re Next is among the latter, thank goodness. Rooster Illusion doesn’t like being scared. He does, however, like watching an Australian woman kill some dudes.
The set-up is a straightforward one: College professor Crispian (AJ Bowen) brings his grad student girlfriend (Sharni Vinson) along to his parents’ (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton) isolated mansion to celebrate their anniversary. The film takes a little time to introduce us to the rest of the family; not too long, but long enough to explain why Crispian is so unhappy about going to this reunion. His brother Drake (Joe Swanberg) is a smug asshole, still bullying Crispian as an adult. Their parents favor the more successful Drake, and Crispian is the one who always seems to get into trouble when they argue. There are other siblings, and each sibling has a significant other. So that’s ten adults gathered for this reunion at an isolated mansion in the woods. Spoiler: not everyone makes it.
Much of the humor comes from the character dynamics set up in the first half hour. Even before the shit really hits the fan, there are some laughs to be had from watching siblings bicker. Joe Swanberg gets some good lines at the dinner table, criticizing Crispian for his “unprofessional” relationship with Erin. A part of me would have been happy to watch that dark comedy about a dysfunctional family play out sans murder, but there’s a bigger part of me that was really on board with the murder stuff. That…came out kind of weird.
But watching this already messed up family continue bickering when crossbow bolts (I know, right?) start flying through the windows is unexpectedly funny. Sure, there’s plenty of screaming, but countering those screams with sarcastic barbs and childish rivalries—the siblings arguing over who’s the fastest, for example—is super effective. It’s unexpected, at least at first, and more importantly, it feels natural. All that bickering, out of place though it may seem, is consistent with the characters. That’s what makes it funny. We don’t expect to laugh when someone runs full speed into a deadly trap, but Simon Barrett’s screenplay does the work to set up that dark punch line.
Just as effective is the way the film uses Erin, the aforementioned Aussie badass. It’s a common trope in horror films to have a Final Girl, someone who manages to evade the killer long enough to make it to the sequel. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween comes to mind. Usually, we just put that character’s survival down to, well, survival instincts. Or, in the worst cases, plot contrivances. Here, there’s actually a reason for Erin to be such a badass: she was raised on a commune in the Outback by her crazy survivalist dad. Not only has she been trained to react calmly in a crisis, but she’s also smart. Yeah, that’s right. A smart, tough lady in a horror movie. Quelle surprise!
You’re Next is at its best when it’s taking worn out tropes like that and reinvigorating them. That having been said, it’s not exactly reinventing the genre. We like to throw that phrase along whenever a genre film come along that feels fresh, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Something like The Cabin in the Woods or Scream is aware of genre conventions, but it’s never really about taking something old and replacing it with something new. In those cases, it’s about taking something old and reminding us why it works in the first place. You’re Next hits all the beats of a home invasion flick–I think, I’m mainly going off Home Alone and some scattered movie trivia, here–but Barrett and director Adam Wingard clearly care about what they’re doing. The cliches don’t feel like cliches, and the bits you see coming still make you laugh, or jump, or cheer, or shout: “What the fuck?” And that, my friends, is the mark of a good movie.
So next time you’re hanging out with your friends on a Friday night, don’t go to a bar. Stay home and watch You’re Next. It’s clever, bloody, and bloody entertaining (see what I did there?). How many bars can say that?