If A Horrible Way to Die, the hallucinatory 2010 effort from Adam Wingard, was a genre riff on Antonioni’s Red Desert (1965), then his follow-up You’re Next (2013) plays like a horror rendition of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) with its squirm-inducing family reunion. A more mainstream work than his previous films, You’re Next is a fun, witty slasher with inspired moments of awkwardness taken straight from the mumblecore playbook. Though it’s at times undone by some hyperactive digital camerawork, Wingard handles the tone well, seamlessly switching from knife-edge tension to cringeworthy comedy.
You’re Next opens with an old man (Larry Fessenden) and young woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) in flagrante delicto in a large house in the middle of nowhere, unaware that a killer is lurking outside. Meanwhile, Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) are on their way to a family reunion in the house next door to celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary. After some uncomfortable small talk with his siblings and their respective partners, a mystery assailant fires a crossbow at one of the guests. So begins an evening of bloody massacre. With many of the cast having worked together before in various capacities, a detailed spider diagram would be necessary to demonstrate the various connections between them.
It’s encouraging to see a quasi-repertory company for horror cinema made up entirely of young talent. You’re Next feels like a lark with plenty of in-jokes and playful jibes aimed at Wingard’s directing compatriots (House of the Devil director Ti West is the film’s first victim and micro-budget factotum Joe Swanberg is an insecure, competitive brother). But, crucially, the sense of fun and energy carries over on screen. It’s inevitably a moderate disappointment that You’re Next is a safer, more conventional work than A Horrible Way to Die, but it’s an understandable career move for Wingard.
When the film screened in a midnight slot at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011, there were reports of numerous distributors eagerly monitoring its potential. But once the initial deflation is dispensed with, there’s a genuine thrill in seeing a mainstream horror film this lean and self-aware. You’re Next operates as a genre palette cleanser, with its acerbic humour bringing a fresh, vital edge to the most worn slasher tropes. It may tread the path most travelled, but it still leaves room for the occasional unexpected diversion.