By Jed Mayer | Press Play August 28, 2013 at 8:30AM
For a culture obsessed with maintaining control—over our minds, our bodies, our borders, and our relationships—horror films serve as a necessary reminder of the futility of such endeavors. Horror is all about disruption, deprivation, penetration, dislocation and all manner of mess, chaos and spillage. And a horror film is most frightening when it breaks through the fragile borders that protect what is most precious to us. Adam Wingard’s disturbing new film makes the most of such fears by taking up the popular thriller scenario of the home invasion. And while You’re Next is genuinely frightening, ranking right up there with other recent films that excel in this mode, such as The Strangers and Them, it also offers a sharply satirical take on a distinctively American sense of privilege and entitlement. Embedding his fairly traditional sequential homicide plot in a dysfunctional family drama, Wingard gives us a taste of what Last House on the Left might have looked like if it were directed by Luis Bunuel instead of Wes Craven, and in the process re-politicizes a genre too often exploited for mindless thrills.
The film concerns itself with the reunion of a very wealthy family celebrating the parents' anniversary. But the darker underpinnings are set by its alarming introduction. The wealth of the Davison family is in inverse proportion to its sense of community and compassion, as we see when mom and dad pass a neighbor’s home not far from their own country estate. Noticing a car in the driveway, they remark that no one has occupied it in quite a while, and Paul (Rob Moran) remarks, “It’ll be kind of nice having neighbors – we’re so isolated out here.” Struck by the peculiar novelty of actually living near someone else, wife Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) eyes him uncertainly and replies, “Um, maybe.”
This sense of narcissistic detachment permeates the family, and as their reunion gets underway a palpable chill settles on their enormous country estate that has little to do with the weather. Beyond the usual sibling rivalry, family relations are strained by a father who seems bored even by his children’s achievements, while at the same time straining after an illusion of family warmth and camaraderie. As the house fills with guests, Aubrey seems increasingly out to lunch, a classic portrayal of a trophy wife who has ceded her status as an individual. The significant others of the younger family members are regarded as somewhat annoying curiosities by the other Davisons, as if they were stray pets who haven’t been entirely housebroken. Significantly, the daughter’s partner is an underground documentary filmmaker played by one of independent horror’s leading figures, Ti West. The family is deeply perplexed by the question of what would motivate anyone to direct low-budget films, and the oldest brother encourages him instead to direct advertisements, which he deems the twenty-first century’s premier art form.
Suffice it to say that by the time the masked invaders begin to pile up bodies, no tears will be shed (at least by the audience). Wingard demonstrates his mastery of the genre by knocking his annoying characters off in a disturbing, and often amusing, variety of ways. Many of the murder scenes verge on elaborate slapstick routines, at times suggestive of Rube Goldberg stunts designed for the Marquis de Sade. Critics have praised the film’s deft management of the fine line between horror and humor, and while it’s true that this series of killings is a genuinely funny and frightening tour de force, the film’s real appeal is in the pointed nature of its satire.
Early in the film, as Crispian Davison (A.J Bowen) and his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) are driving up to the reunion, she asks him how his family became so wealthy. When he answers that his father used to work for a Halliburton-like firm of defense contractors, he jokingly asks, “Are you sure you’re okay having dinner with fascists?” Military concessions aren’t the only thing the Davison paterfamilias has been contracting out: as the siblings discuss the slow progress of their family estate’s restoration, they note that dad bought the place as a kind of retirement project, but has lazily hired other people to work on it rather than restore it himself. As the film progresses, certain members of the family are shown to have a surprising connection with their killers, and the film comes to serve as an extended meditation on the connections that exist between members of an economic and social community, and the impossibility of compartmentalizing them. The Davisons would like to believe that they have achieved a pristine sense of isolation from the society they profit from, but their financial ties bind them to a population on whom they would prefer to turn their backs.
At the other end of the social spectrum is the family background of Crispian’s girlfriend, Erin. As the dwindling family members hunker down in their embattled home, she reveals a surprising efficiency at defense tactics, which she confesses having learned during a peculiar childhood raised in a militia compound in the Australian outback. Her father was a survivalist who believed the world’s problems of overpopulation, food and water shortages would result in global anarchy, and devoted his life to ensuring his and his family’s continuation. Yet while Erin’s and Crispian’s families may come from different sides of the class divide, their social values are surprisingly similar, and reflect some of the dominant tendencies in American culture. Gun-toting survivalists in their militia compounds and retired millionaires sequestered behind their capital gains share a common vision of freedom and independence at any cost, and Wingard’s film effectively shows what happens when this twisted version of the American dream goes horribly wrong.
While Erin is certainly the film’s most dynamic character and the closest thing the film has to a heroine, she differs from the familiar “last girl” figure of traditional horror films. Unlike the resourceful Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre survivor Sally Hardesty, Erin goes beyond merely getting out of the nightmare in which she finds herself: she becomes an essential part of that nightmare, engaging in brutal overkills that constitute some of the film’s most uncomfortable viewing. In one especially complicated encounter she hesitates before the kill, before dismissively asking, “Why the fuck not?” as she finishes the bloody deed. Survivalist Erin is no worse than the selfish Davisons and their ruthless assailants, but it would be quite a stretch to suggest that she offers an alternative moral center to the violent maelstrom in which she finds herself.
In its by turns disturbing and hilarious portrayal of a privileged family’s reunion gone horribly wrong, You’re Next gives us what is perhaps this year’s most trenchant commentary on an America increasingly riddled by narcissism and greed. That it chooses to center its satire on a family gathering points up its difference from the summer’s other major horror offerings, The Conjuring and Insidious 2, both directed by James Wan. Where Wan gives us a disappointingly traditional vision of the home as locus of love and solidarity, Wingard reminds us that houses are designed as much to keep others out as to shelter those within. Wingard’s film takes its title from the bloody words scrawled on the walls of the Davison’s home by its invaders, and these words might be taken as a dark reminder of our common lot. You might think you’ve landed yourself a comfortable position and a secure future, but as horror films remind us, it may be only a matter of time until you’re next.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.