Adam Wingard’s You’re Next does a lot of things right that you wouldn’t really expect it to. The home invasion genre of horror is one that usually has a lot of overlap with slashers or torture-porn, so it’s hard to find an approach that feels fresh. It’s also one of the genres that is more prone to solipsistic moralizing, something that is generally never a good sign in a horror film, specifically in the way many films seek to indict the viewer for wanting to see people be horribly brutalized in the name of entertainment even though the film-makers are the hypocrites themselves for presenting the material the way they do and denying the viewer a proper catharsis (I blame Haneke and Funny Games for setting the tone for the genre). What Wingard and screen-writer Simon Barrett do that’s interesting, is largely play with that voyeuristic aspect, but in a self-aware and frequently comic way.
The film opens with a scene of a couple having sex, shot mostly through the windows of their house. He takes a shower, and emerges to find her dead and the words “You’re Next” written in blood on the window before he is killed himself. The next shot is a nicely composed scene of Aubrey and Paul driving out to their deeply secluded woodland mansion to celebrate their anniversary, soon joined by their son Crispian, a struggling professor, and Erin, his grad-student girl-friend. Over the next day they are joined by snobbish son Drake and wife Kelly, daughter Aimee and film-maker boyfriend Tariq, and troublesome youngest child Felix and girl-friend Zee. For the first half of the film, it plays as an earnest indie family dramedy, the kind of self-consciously “important” film where actors mumble and talk over each other to tell a story of privileged white people having problems pretty much only comfortably wealthy white people have to face. Once the family sits down to dinner and, in the midst of an argument, begin to be killed off one-by-one by killers in animal masks, the gears shift into full horror mode.
Much of the action is confined to the house, giving the film a somewhat claustrophobic feel that add to the siege panic of the dwindling number of survivors. The focus almost immediately becomes Erin, who rises to what at first blush seems to be a rather rote “Final Girl” sort of role before we learn that, no, actually she spent her entire childhood in survivalist camps in the outback training for just this sort of thing. Deaths are quick and relatively gore-light, as the film depends more on atmosphere and the dwindling cast numbers to build tension. There are surprising moments of levity, veering towards an almost inappropriate comedy of errors level at times. For careful viewers, there is even a strongly seeded mystery, disguised as a “twist” that becomes apparent as the film develops to it’s, frankly, inevitable climax.
Why the film works as well as it does, I think, is because the film retains a sense of awareness of genre conventions but never becoming smug about it. There is a very deliberate use of recurrent horror motifs, such as a lone female survivor, a masked psychopath, and voyeuristic POV shots that the film makes deliberate usage of, but in a way that acknowledges that these are tropes that work for a reason, apart from some deliberate lampshading of the “Final Girl” idea. While some critics dismissed the film as “nihilistic” I think that description is a disservice. It’s grim, but it’s a grimness borne of black comedy, veering into satire. Yes, the bulk of the characters are unsympathetic, but they’re meant to be. This is an indie drama about a dysfunctional family where the problems are resolved not by bold declarations of familial love but by murderers.