Raymond Chandler once offered a foolproof formula for holding readers’ attention: Whenever the story flags, throw in a dead body.
“You’re Next,” with 14 actors and almost as many corpses, scarcely gives you a chance to breathe, let alone daydream. A taut, garish gut-wrencher about a family attacked by masked gate-crashers, it’s presented with audacious mastery of its pulp material. Director Adam Wingard knows his way around creaking floorboards and predators half-seen in the background. Adding ice-pick-sharp humor to the home-invasion genre, he makes you flinch and giggle simultaneously.
Soft-spoken college instructor Crispian (A.J. Bowen) and his new, young girlfriend, Erin (Sharni Vinson), travel to a remote woodland mansion for a rare family reunion to mark his parents’ 35th anniversary and Dad’s retirement. The family is richly dysfunctional, and as Erin sizes up Crispian’s parents, rivalrous siblings and their significant others, so do we.
Paterfamilias Paul (amiably entitled lord-of-the-manor Rob Moran) and matriarch Aubrey (slyly cast horror vet Barbara Crampton) could have ambled out of a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. Drake, their snide, insinuating eldest, is played with go-ahead-and-hate-me glee by indie director Joe Swanberg. Insecure daughter Aimee (Amy Seimetz) arrives with her pretentious filmmaker boyfriend, Tariq (Ti West, himself a prolific director of chillers). Lurking beneath his reserved, resentful facade, youngest brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) has quite a bag of tricks. As tensions rise at the dinner table, it’s obvious this would be a difficult night under the best circumstances.
When the animal-masked killers attack, the family collapses into a scrum of hysteria, incapable of devising a plan to escape or fight back. (Tellingly, Dad was a top defense contractor.) Erin, a sideline character to this point, assumes command, retaliating with fearsome assurance. Like Uma Thurman battling the Crazy 88 Fighters in “Kill Bill,” Erin inspires admiration, shock, horror, dismay and a warped kind of lust.
Vinson is equal to the role, bringing to it beauty, steel-edged energy and the ability to keep a straight face while doing preposterous things. “You’re Next” is peppered with nods to earlier chillers but its new take on the Final Girl is its most ingenious twist on classic themes.
Simon Barrett’s script smartly varies the story’s emotional beats. Rather than remorselessly ratcheting up the body count, it balances psychological angst and moments of blunt force trauma with exhilarating moments of triumph, nihilistic laughs and clever plotting. The explanation for the mysterious siege is novel and satisfying. The characters are strongly drawn, so their warped relationships and petty conflicts fuel the terror. Even while they’re bleeding out, the siblings squabble about who can run for help the fastest. Barrett also invents creative ways to shuffle his characters off this mortal coil, including one candidate for the hall of fame.
“You’re Next” proves that a transfusion of bloody, breathless energy and brains can revive a played-out subgenre. It’s frightfully good.