When low budget horror movie "You're Next" premiered back at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, it received a rapturous response and set off a small scale buying war (Lionsgate, home to the "Hostel" and "Saw" franchises, and savior to Joss Whedon's marooned masterpiece "Cabin in the Woods," eventually won out). It played Austin's Fantastic Fest later that same month, to equally enthusiastic crowds and then…nothing. The movie is finally going to be released in August of this year, and in anticipation, the movie came back to Austin, this time for SXSW. And while it isn't quite the genre breakthrough many, at the time, were claiming it was (a prominent blogger provocatively asked if it was the next "Scream" -- it's not), it's still a fun, bloody, occasionally scary home invasion romp.
One of the problems with "You're Next" is that it has an impossibly strong opening, one that the rest of the movie just can't compare to; it sets you up for a movie that sadly never materializes. Still, what an opening: an older man (genre director Larry Fessenden) is having sex with a spry young woman. He finishes, er, prematurely, and goes to take a shower. She gets up and walks around the large house, her shirt unbuttoned and her pert breasts exposed. She goes to the stereo and puts on the Dwight Twilley Band's "Looking for the Magic." And that's when things get really scary (hint: the words "You're Next" appear smeared in blood).
This opening sequence is really impressively photographed and staged and the choice of song, an eerie pop ditty from a nearly forgotten album, adds a kind of groovy resonance. If there's anything that is comparable to Wes Craven's "Scream," it's this scene, which plays with remarkable similarity to the opening of that movie (where Drew Barrymore is taunted on the phone by a masked killer and eventually gutted). Unfortunately, immediately after this sequence, the movie switches gears and never quite reclaims its mojo.
The main thrust of the story, which begins immediately after this brilliant (if somewhat tangential) sequence, concerns the Davidson family, which is reuniting at their family house out in the country. They are ostensibly celebrating the parents' wedding anniversary (the parents are played by colorless character actor Rob Moran and, in a stroke of pure fucking genius, Barbara Crampton from "Re-Animator" and a particularly memorable 1986 Playboy pictorial). Almost as soon as everyone is assembled, which includes son Crispian (AJ Bowen), who is introducing his family to his hot Australian girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson), a group of masked invaders enters the house and starts offing pretty much everyone. (Horror director Ti West, playing a doomed boyfriend, is the first to go, getting an arrow through the eye.)
From then on out it's like a combination of "The Strangers" and an Agatha Christie novel, as each family member is brutally offed in increasingly creative, blood-soaked ways. What makes "You're Next" so fun, at least initially, is that the family keeps bickering even as they are losing limbs and untold gallons of blood. It's the frenzy of any family get-together, taken to murderous extremes. Crispian feels out of place amongst his WASP-y siblings, especially his super goon-ish brother, played winningly by mumblecore kingpin Joe Swanberg (he somehow gets even funnier when arrows are sticking out of his back).
The central mystery of "You're Next" (who these killers are and who put them up to it) is, sadly, kind of limp. There's very little elaboration given to this conceit and it feels like a letdown that at the heart of a very engaging, entertaining scenario is something so wafer-thin. Thankfully, there's something even more appealing than a fully formed plot, something that, as a viewer, you can just as easily hang your hat on – a kick-ass female hero, in the form of Vinson's Erin. Off-handedly she mentions that she was raised in a kind of survivalist compound in the outback, and so she fashions all sorts of booby traps and lays out complicated strategies to help the remaining members of the family survive the ordeal. It's like "Home Alone" mixed with "Apocalypto" and the end of "Skyfall," but with a cheeky, singularly knowing wit. (Her casting feels like a tip of the hat to the long, storied history of Australian exploitation cinema, a landscape "You're Next" would easily fit into.) Vinson is genuinely incredible and feels like she has the potential to be a very big star (and not just in subsequent "You're Next" sequels – two are planned).
Writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, who previously collaborated on 2010's serial killer chiller "A Horrible Way to Die" and shepherded both last year's found footage horror anthology "V/H/S" as well as this year's "V/H/S 2" (which also played at SXSW), clearly know the genre inside and out, and are eager to, if not totally rip it apart and start all over again, then at least to goose it considerably. At 96 minutes, there isn't an ounce of fat on "You're Next," and while it isn't quite the groundbreaking genre triumph most who saw it initially made it out to be, it is still a whole lot of fun. Barrett and Wingard are clever filmmakers, but unlike many modern day horror directors, their cleverness never gets in the way. There's an earnestness to the entertainment in "You're Next" that is truly admirable, and at the end of the day it's a super enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. Oh, and good luck getting that Dwight Twilley Band song out of your head. [B]