Every horror movie, on some fundamental level, traffics in bullshit. Characters stay in houses they should leave. They approach dark rooms from which they hear strange sounds emanating — rooms that, in real life, they wouldn’t come near with a gun pointed to their heads. They consult professors of demonology at the drop of a hat. They call exorcists. The effectiveness of a horror film depends very much on context and atmosphere: The movie has to seduce you into accepting the many implausibilities upon which it will build suspense and terror. Watch even a masterpiece like The Descent or Halloween with the wrong frame of mind, and it may very well collapse around you.
That said, I’m calling bullshit on You’re Next, a sadistic, stupid, and strangely inept entry into the rapidly proliferating home-invaders-with-strange-masks sweepstakes. Maybe, in another time and place, and with different actors and a better director, it might have worked. But this thing collapses right from the get-go. It opens on a couple having sex; then, as the dude goes to shower, the scantily clad girl goes into the living room to put on some music, whereupon …well, you know. It’s a typical horror movie beginning, but director Adam Wingard shoots everything so closely that we not only get very little sense of the space but we also notice how bad the acting is. (A shame, because the guy is played by Larry Fessenden, a pretty good actor and an excellent director in the low-budget horror scene, with films like Wendigo and Habit to his name.) It’s the spatial confusion that’s the real killer here: At one point, a light goes on in the background, and it’s supposed to be shocking, but the framing is such that it feels casual, almost like a mistake. My guard went up instantly, and it pretty much never came back down.
The main story involves a large family gathering to celebrate the retired parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. Their back-and-forth is meant to indicate dysfunction, but they don’t seem messed up, more just irritating and unrealistic. Nebbishy professor brother Crispian (A.J. Bowen) and his Aussie girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) are supposed to be the vaguely likable ones here, with yuppie brother Drake (Joe Swanberg, in a funny turn as a dickish alpha male) the main offender when it comes to playfully terrorizing his siblings. “Do you do commercials? ‘Cause those are my favorite,” Drake muses to his sister’s filmmaker boyfriend at the dinner table, which one assumes is the worst thing you can say in a movie where the cast is made up largely of micro-budget filmmakers. (The sister and her boyfriend are played by Sun Don’t Shine director Amy Seimetz and House of the Devil director Ti West.) The tone oscillates between naturalistic and goofy, ominous and just plain weird, and it might have worked if there were any consistency to the performances. Regardless, soon enough, one guest gets an arrow to the head, another gets one in the back, and all hell breaks loose.
Unfortunately, much of the action is incoherent, so despite the chaos and the shrieking and the cowering, the questions start to pile up: Why are the bad guys using crossbows? Why are people able to easily to sneak up on each other in such a creaky old house? Why, when the killing starts, is mom taken upstairs to rest in the same bedroom where people heard ominous noises earlier? Why, when it’s clearly revealed that one of the killers is inside the house, do the folks inside the house continue to act as if they’re largely safe there? And let’s not even get started on the big “reveals” of the film’s third act, which send things spinning off in more ludicrous directions.
You’re Next seems purposefully designed to get a rise out of the yell-back-at-the-screen crowd, with its host of not-particularly likable characters, its forays into surreal comic exchanges (at one point, the victims discuss sending someone to run for help and argue over who’s the fastest runner), and its bits of sensationalistic violence (one dude gets a blender to the head). But the constant blasts of music that accompany the jump scares merely serve to smother the shock, drawing attention to how awkwardly directed it all is. I consider myself a fairly easy scare when it comes to this sort of thing, but You’re Next barely got a rise out of me. And yet, this thing has inexplicably garnered acclaim on the festival circuit, winning awards and being championed as an antidote to the allegedly corporate, watered-down nature of today’s mainstream horror. Whatever, kids. Enjoy. I’ll be home, watching my Blu-ray of Mama.