Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: You're Next (2013)

The summer of 2013 witnessed the arrival of several colossal blockbusters, sequels, and remakes.  Yet for my money one of the best (and most refreshing…) films of the season is the modestly-budgeted slasher-styled horror film You’re Next from director Adam Wingard. 

While explicitly noting the familiarity of its “ten little Indians”-styled narrative structure to other, historical slasher films, You’re Next also cleverly depicts a fascinating tragedy about modern “family values.” 

In short, You’re Next concerns the deliberate up-ending of the American family’s hearth and home -- symbolized in the film by an over-turned dining room table -- in exchange for something that many folks indeed seek without relent: abundant material wealth. 

So it would be fair to state that You’re Next begins like The Strangers (2008) but ends up more like Straw Dogs (1971), contextualizing its graphic violence as the product of a culture that has lost a grip on its moral barometer, and will succumb to violence at the slightest provocation, or the slightest hint of monetary gain.

You’re Next is crisply visualized, and well-acted, but more than that -- and much like The Purge (2013), and Elysium (2013) -- it seems to cannily embody our contentious times; a span when fewer and fewer Americans discern a legitimate path towards prosperity, and must therefore seek or consider options outside the establishment if they hope to succeed. 

Sometimes those options involve outright rebellion (Elysium), sometimes they involve passing new laws that oppress some while “freeing” others (The Purge), and sometimes they involve, simply, murder for profit (You’re Next).

There is nothing pretentious or preachy about You’re Next, however.

It’s a straight-up scary and smart horror film featuring just the right dose of social commentary. And delightfully, much of that commentary is transmitted in the visual composition, not in the dialogue.

“This wasn’t a random attack. Our family’s being targeted.”

In You’re Next, the four dysfunctional children of Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey Davison (Barbara Crampton) gather with their significant others at the remote but upscale family estate in order to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their parents’ marriage. 

Each adult Davison child has a major personality defect or pathology to contend with.  Drake (Joe Swanberg) is a narcissistic bully. Crispin (A.J. Bowen) boasts a king-sized persecution/victim complex. Felix (Nicholas Tucci) is not merely spoiled, but downright entitled.  And Aimee (Amy Seimetz) believes she is invisible, and is therefore desperate for any positive attention or approbation. Everybody treats her like a baby, or a princess, and she can no longer stand it.

As for the patriarch and matriarch of the Davison family, they are also a wee bit problematic. Mom can’t face reality and is strung out on prescription “medication” while Dad is a former PR man for a defense contractor that worked in Iraq during the war.  He may have secrets to hide about how he earned his (copious amounts) of money.

Accordingly, Crispin’s girlfriend and former student Erin (Sharni Vinson) worries that she is having “dinner with fascists.”

They aren’t truly fascists, but the Davison family clearly counts itself among the 1%, and Erin -- raised by a survivalist dad in the Australian Outback -- is most decidedly…not.  She’s still paying off student loans, for example. One day, she’d like to be able to afford a house.

As the family gathers for dinner, and old sibling rivalries and tensions mount, something worse than mere bickering occurs. 

A masked assailant begins shooting arrows into the Davison house, committing bloody murder in the process. 

As the family members start to panic over the attack, Erin realizes that they are all trapped in the house, and that some of the masked assailants may already be inside…

“Would you just die already? This is hard enough for me already…”

In some trenchant visual and thematic fashion, You’re Next is methodically about “the disconnect” from humanity that appears to be represented in some modern American values.

Thus the film’s title -- You’re Next -- carries a deliberate double meaning.  In the context of the film it means you could be the next victim of the killers.  “You’re next” is a message the murderers scrawl in human blood on windows and walls. 

But in the context of the film’s commentary, “You’re Next” means you could be the next person deemed expendable…for your material wealth.

The Davison family lives in a huge mansion, far away from any real community, and that’s a part of the film’s social critique.  This location separates the family both from riff-raff, and, ironically, also from help during a crisis. 

We’re so isolated up here.  It might be nice to have a neighbor,” Aubrey (dreamily…) laments early in the film, immediately before You’re Next cuts to an establishing shot that eerily mimics a prominent and memorable composition from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973).  

There, a long establishing view -- far away from the road -- captured the tiny Volkswagen van as it drove along a giant, unforgiving landscape.  Here, the family car is given the same visual treatment, and so a couple of things might be divined about You’re Next’s approach. 

First, Wingard knows his horror film history and allusions. 

Secondly, the vast shot embodies the isolation of the film’s central location.

Thirdly -- and perhaps most crucially -- this particular visual suggests a kind of God’s eye perspective.  

It’s almost as though the universe itself is standing back from the central characters, uncaring and unforgiving of their fate.  In the case of You’re Next, the tiny car on the vast landscape seems also to suggest the spiritual barren-ness of the characters and their lives.  They’re driving on a long, empty road, heading…they know not where. 

In further charting the “disconnect” I noted above, You’re Next seems downright Wes Craven-esque in its approach to theme. 

Specifically -- as was the case in Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Deadly Friend (1986) and The People Under the Stairs (1991) to name just a few titles -- horror resides expressly in the family home, not in some Gothic or esoteric structure outside the confines of normality.

In You’re Next we discover a home of secrets and lies, two bad, disengaged parents, and four resentful, damaged children.  We also meet the talking, scheming killer, as we did in Scream (1996).

Given the location of the film’s terror -- the family home -- it’s notable that representations and symbols of family life and togetherness are destroyed in the film.

Before the film’s carnage commences in earnest, for instance, the Davison family breaks bread together around an expansive dinner table.  This table is decorated with ample food, and the best silverware and china imaginable.  The image presented is determinedly one of luxury and plenty.  On the surface, this is the American dream made manifest:  a family joined together, sharing its hard-earned bounty.

The social occasion, however, is a façade or a lie.  The heartfelt family prayer, the fancy red wine, and the fine crystal can’t hide the fact that the “family” is shattered, and roiling with discontent. The masked killers enter the home, and make that point plain for the audience.

In one shot, an arrow strikes the dining room wall, and immediately shatters a family portrait.  So the image of the family -- the untruthful façade -- is the first victim of the attack.  An arrow literally pierces that lie right off the bat.

Later, a furious killer actually turns over the dining room table, putting the last nail in the false front of family values.  In close-up, we see the wine glasses, plates, and silverware tip over and crash. Everything hits the floor, and everything is destroyed…violently.

That’s pretty much what happens to the Davison family as well.

Without revealing too many details of the film’s final act, the highly-organized attack on the Davison family is not unmotivated, and it arises not from outside the family gathering, but from within it. 

The person orchestrating the attack boasts no sense of betrayal or treachery, and is, in fact, angry, that the other family members are making it so hard for the masked assailants to kill them.  This character -- so accustomed to the world of white male privilege and money -- believes that others should roll over and die on command so that the estate’s wealth flows downstream to the right beneficiary.

The cruel and clueless Davison siblings and parents are contrasted in the film with the resourceful and canny Erin. 

She may have also been raised in an isolated locale too (specifically “the Outback”) but she learned something meaningful from that unusual experience: how to survive, how to detect danger, and how to defend herself. 

By contrast, the Davisons make for easy pickings because they have lived inside a cocoon of privilege all their lives, and can’t conceive of the idea that their bubble of luxury and social status is so easily ruptured.  

They have no latent survival skills on which to fall back upon.  Again, the Davison parents have failed their children in a most egregious fashion.  These kids are fit for nothing, except being rich and pampered.

This tale of a cut-throat system of values -- where an inheritance is worth eminently more than a living mom and dad -- is adroitly exploited in You’re Next, despite the familiarity of the set-up and the story-beats 

Delightfully, director Wingard takes the slasher paradigm’s familiarity into account here, and even comments on that oft-utilized structure or format. 

Specifically, long-time fans of the slasher paradigm will recognize several key components in the film. 

First, we have the killers who wear masks, thus separating them visually from the victim pool. 

Then there is the final girl: the one insightful (female) protagonist who alone discerns danger while others are distracted by vice and avarice.

Also You’re Next is structured as a series of repetitive murder set-pieces, in large part like a Halloween or Friday the 13th film. 

And finally, there’s a sting-in-the-tail/tale at the denouement, a surprise that changes everything the audience thinks it knows, and culminates with a coup de grace.

But within this accepted and oft-repeated structure, You’re Next finds ample room for invention, and again, commentary.  In particular, Wingard cuts again and again to close-up shots of a sound system inside a neighbor’s house. 

This specific house is visited on no less than three occasions throughout the film, and is also the site of at least three murders.  On the neighbor’s sound system the first song on a CD is played again and again, repetitively. 

That song becomes the film’s unofficial soundtrack to pursuit and murder.

You’re Next repeats that song -- knowingly so -- just as it determinedly repeats the elements of the familiar slasher-film paradigm.  The film and its director thus seems to acknowledge that You’re Next is playing “selection one” -- and only selection one -- on the CD player (or DVD player).

Now this touch is clever for a few reasons too. 

First, Wingard is acknowledging and commenting on the genre he participates in. It can be repetitive and predictable, and he wants you to know that he understands that fact. 

Secondly, the victims and would-be victims who hear the song are each listening to it for the first time, an acknowledgement that even something that is seemingly clichéd at this point -- like a slasher film -- can seem new to fresh audiences, or to fresh directors.

And thirdly, the fact of a CD that repeats the same song appears to be an overt thematic acknowledgment that things haven’t really changed in 21st century America in terms of family relationships.  The love of money is at the root of all evil, and that’s an idea that goes way back indeed.  It’s an idea, however, that keeps “playing” in the national consciousness, just as that CD keeps playing endlessly in the neighbor’s house.

You’re Next is thus an exceptionally smart and well-observed horror movie.  Watching it, I was reminded a bit of Donald Rumsfeld’s acknowledgment in the Iraq War of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. 

Basically, who survives and who doesn’t in You’re Next comes down to the information that each character possesses (or doesn’t possess) at a certain juncture, and that fact makes the film highly suspenseful. In some sense, the final girl survives here because she discerns the correct information in time to save her life.  Others are not so lucky.   

You’re Next is tense and funny, and in the final analysis the best sort of horror picture: a smart one.  You may think you’ve seen this particular family album before, but in a way, that’s the movie’s point. 

The Davisons could be the family in the McMansion next door.  They could be your family.

You’re next…


  1. John interesting review. These types of films are sobering. I guess it would not have mattered if they had a gun in the house since there was an enemy within. This film would have been much more horrible to me if the family was innocent instead of the usual suspects.


  2. I thought that this film was terrific! Unfortunately this film is a shining example of what happens when a studio does not believe in the product. Released in 2013 on or about the same time as the much-hyped, similar themed 'The Purge', even though the production of this film was in 2011. And the marketing campaign for 'YN' can only be considered weak, at best.

    1. Hi SGB and Trent.

      SGB: I understand what you're saying. There's a sense here that what goes around, comes around. That may make You're Next less frightening, but it also makes it more of a moral parable.

      Trent: I agree with you! This film feels uncompromised, and all the more fun for that fact. I liked The Purge, but I loved You're Next...

  3. I thought this film was about as original as its title. However, I will admit I have seen worse.

  4. Hi Tonio, nice to see you! I think You're Next inoculates itself against charges of un-originality right in the body of the film. The images of the repeating text, and the audio of the repeated song suggest as much. Within that familiar framework, however, I found the film quite inventive.

    All my best,

  5. Hi John,

    I'm a great admirer of your work and have been waiting for you to review You're Next. So glad you loved it. I would like to know your best horror films of the year, if possible.

    Unlike Tonio, I think that You're Next is plenty original within its framework. It's surprisingly funny in a way that doesn't shoehorn itself into a horror-comedy. And the female lead is so well-drawn and acted that for my money she's an instant top ten survivor girl. It takes precision to nail such a potentially problematic backstory, but she, Wingard and Barrett let her actions do the talking and the story unfold naturally. Couple that with the amazing Carpenter-esque score/soundtrack, the beautiful slow-motion cinematography, and the totally unexpected plot twists (for once, lately, its not "just because we can" a la The Strangers), I think you have a highly original and accomplished film. As you said above, it is uncompromising, and I think if it was released in the 70s, it would now be as highly regarded as Last House on the Left. And for me, throwing back to another era in a manner that is totally refreshing, is positively original. When's the last time we saw a family dynamic such as this in a horror film?

  6. Also, as you pointed out, Adam Wingard definitely knows his horror history and has a firm grasp of the language, although You're Next is far and away his best film. Whatever anyone may say about Home Sick or Pop Skull, they're both made by a man with vast knowledge of his favorite genre.

  7. Sometimes masks are scary and deadly ambushes are, too. But this movie was not. Slasher films lose their impact when the killer is revealed and "You're Next" does so way too early. The family members were one-dimensional but how couldn't they be when the run time is 100 minutes and there's a cast of at least a dozen.

    It all boils down to one woman going "Rambo" on a bunch of hit men. There are certainly opportunities to extract social commentary from this, but it's nothing more than dysfunctional, reprehensible people getting their comeuppance as viewed through the filmmaker's morality filters.

    "You're Next" is just another, slightly prettier, slasher film.


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