You’re Next is a pure, pitch-perfect horror movie. It’s as though writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard took the DNA of a dozen home invasion and slasher films and then spun them around in the centrifuge that is their twisted minds until all the bad genes, the cliches and the tropes we’ve all been rolling our eyes at for years, had separated, leaving behind the best genetics the genre has to offer. You’re Next is the complete distillation of everything that makes the idea of having masked men invade your home both scary and exciting, only all the pretense that comes with those films has been replaced by an inspired understanding of the audience, what they want and, most importantly, what they need.
That’s not to say that You’re Next is derivative of movies like The Strangers. It simply is not. You’re Next is, however, completely aware of the fact that you’ve seen movies like The Strangers where people go out to a big house in the middle of nowhere and are attacked without warning or explanation. And it uses that awareness of the audience to manipulate those expectations in order to deliver a potent horror brew with the heightened ability to make your pulse pound and your cheeks ache from smiling too much.
That’s not to say that You’re Next is a horror comedy, either. Oh, it’s got jokes, but it’s not a satire of cabin-in-the-woods movies. Everyone involved has an intimate understanding that humor and horror go hand-in-hand and so Barrett and Wingard use their characters like pressure relief valves whenever their devilishly smart scenario needs a bit of levity to diffuse the well-earned tension. This is the kind of movie that works the crowd like a piece of clay. It takes a little bit to ease them into it, but once arrows starting flying through windows, the audience is nice and warmed up, and then it’s time for You’re Next to begin molding its centerpiece: the characters.
It’s a done deal that the biggest buzz you’ll hear about the film is how awesome Australian actress Sharni Vinson is as Erin, the film’s final girl. And there’s no reason to take away from that, because Vinson is indeed a smoky shape shifter that can smoothly change her colors from the reluctant girl meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time to the pain-resistant, alarmingly-adept-at-killing-fools badass that she becomes. But this is one of those uncommon ensemble horror movies where every actor pulls their weight no matter how long they get to survive. None of these roles feel like they’re padding the body count, and that’s because Adam Wingard is dealing with a cast that includes Ti West, Amy Seimetz, AJ Bowen, Barbara Crampton, Joe Swanberg, Nicholas Tucci, Rob Moran, and Larry Fesendon. That is an intentionally atypical gang to be thrown together in a home invasion horror movie, but they each turn this family of rich, white suburbanites into a truly memorable, grin-inducing bunch.
Whether it’s Bowen as Erin’s living-in-his-parent’s-shadow boyfriend, Crampton as the fragile but loving mother, Tucci as the one son who doesn’t seem to give a damn what his parents think, or Swanberg as the way-too-smug daddy’s boy, everyone just elevates the material. It’s not often these days when you hate to see this many characters die. There’s always one or two in the lot begging to bite it, but because You’re Next knows how to handle its characters so well, even the ones who do deserve an arrow in the back stick around until you can see them finally kick the bucket in a glorious way. This is the kind of horror movie where you hate to see the characters go, but you just love to see them die. The kills are inventive and drawn-out (though not in a torturous way), each designed to give the character the most audience-pleasing send off possible. It’s movies like You’re Next that prove horror doesn’t need to have buckets of elaborate, stagey gore to entertain you. Sometimes all you need is a lithe final gal who isn’t afraid to open up trained killers with household objects.
But above having excellent kills and well-rounded characters, You’re Next also happens to have an exceedingly slick look as well as a perfect score that feels at once modern and a throwback to the synth-heavy days of the ‘80s. Even when Wingard goes handheld during much of the stalking-portion of the film, things never feel chaotic or out of control thanks to Mads Heldtberg’s score, which guides the movie along like depth charges seeking out hidden prey. And when those prey, be they the family or the masked men, are found, it’s just... bliss. You’re Next is a wholly satisfying, distraction-free, thrilling horror movie that milks every red drop out of its premise, characters and presentation. To put it simply: miss it, and you’re missing the most entertaining American horror film in years.