This shouldn’t be news, but there is a language to film. Languages of all kinds have rules, which is what prevents us from screaming obscenities in the middle of the street and calling it the St. Crispin’s Day Speech. Well, that and all those cease and desist orders. So when a film disobeys its own language, one of two things is happening. It’s either because the filmmaker doesn’t actually speak the language of film and only knows what garbled transmissions made it through the Specter Nebula to his homeworld, or because some interesting subversion is about to take place.
You’re Next, a home invasion horror thriller, is one of the latter.
Every horror fan knows the rules of a home invasion movie, as though it’s born into our DNA. Sadly, the truth is much more prosaic: home invasion pictures can be made on the cheap. It’s one set, a handful of actors, and some gore effects and you’re done. Consequently, they have to do something interesting to set them apart: The Purge caught a lot of undue flack for being a by-the-numbers example of the subgenre. (It was, but it was at least a decent by-the-numbers example, and I can’t hate anything with Lena Headey.) You’re Next starts out exactly as these movies are supposed to, but pretty quickly takes a turn for the unique.
I first became aware of You’re Next at the 2013 Scare L.A., a horror-themed convention in South Los Angeles that I do every year. One of the booths had a few models wearing sleek, dark suits, and creepy white animal masks. Though I barely registered the image, the visual stuck with me long enough so that when I saw those white masks on Netflix, I was intrigued enough to watch.
The movie opens, as these often do, with an unmotivated murder of a pair of people — one of whom is indie-horror godfather Larry Fessenden, once again granting his blessing, this time in the form of his onscreen murder. The narrative shifts over to the anniversary celebration of two wealthy WASPs and their large, dysfunctional clan. There’s Paul (Rob Moran, recognizable from every Farrelly Brothers movie), the stern patriarch, Aubrey, his fragile wife, Drake, the douchey oldest brother, Crispian, the pudgy academic, Felix, the shady fuckup, and Aimee, the daddy’s girl. They’ve also brought their significant others: Drake’s wife Kelly is a brittle, judgmental grown-up mean girl, Felix’s girlfriend Zee is a sullen, creepy goth, Aimee’s boyfriend Tariq is a quiet documentary filmmaker (played by real director Ti West). The most important is Crispian’s girlfriend and former student Erin (Sharni Vinson, owner of the worst IMDB pic ever), a friendly Aussie who looks to be the movie’s Final Girl, destined to run screaming until the third act twist when she goes all Nancy Thompson on the bad guys.
The movie first establishes the family dynamics, and it does so with a minimum of exposition, allowing simmering tension to do the job for them. Drake passive-aggressively asserts his superiority over first Tariq and then Crispian with a variety of condescending remarks, while Felix rolls his eyes, and Aimee trolls for her parents’ approval. Then, in the middle of dinner, the bad guys attack with a crossbow, and that’s when shit gets really interesting.
While every other character reacts how they’re supposed to — screaming and blind panic — Erin begins calmly telling people what to do. She’s scared, certainly, but she remains collected enough to do things like pulling people away from windows, using chairs to shield them from bolts, trying to get people upstairs (and not in the basement, where she casually says, “They could just pour gasoline down the stairs and toss in a match”), call for help and stay down. She has the best ways to secure a house, instantly grabs weapons, and even knows how best to deal with a crossbow wound. Crispian watches her with the mounting horror of anyone seeing another side of their mate. In this case, Erin’s other side is “terrifying survival monster.”
The three villains are instantly iconic due to those white animal masks — a fox, a lamb, and a tiger — that stayed with me from Scare L.A. They are similar enough in outline to mark all three as a unit, but close up have enough differences to see who is who. In particular, the three masks send a clear signal to the audience in the early going: these guys are not human. They are animals. Predators. The lamb would seem to be the oddest choice then, but he’s often shown with a combination axe-sledgehammer that deftly calls to mind images of the slaughterhouse. The white masks contrasted with the black paramilitary costumes make the animal heads appear to float, and director Adam Wingard makes good use of their reflections in panes of darkened glass.
As the evening wears on and the bodies pile up, Erin matches the brutality of the invaders and combines it with an ingenuity that’s downright disturbing. In the beginning of the film, the invaders are inhuman — they don’t speak, they are strangely baffled by corpses — you know, how home invader bad guys in masks are supposed to act. Once Erin starts truly hurting them, the masks begin to come off, and the humans underneath are shown. They’re bleeding, they’re vulnerable, and they’re really wondering how Erin, who looks about ninety pounds soaking wet and wearing a dive belt, has turned into the hunter. It would be like a version of Alien where the monster gets on the Nostromo only to find that it’s full of acid-resistant clones of Mr. T armed with giant gold lobster crackers.
The twists begin to pile up in the back half of the movie, and they’re good enough not to spoil. The best part is that they stand up on repeat viewings. Acting choices that initially look like one thing, or even just a camera lingering too long on a neutral expression, turn out to have much deeper significance. You’re Next is chiefly interesting to horror fans for the specific way it deconstructs the Final Girl trope in fiction, and unlike other examples of deconstructed tropes it contains no easy way out. It works just fine as a straight example of a home invasion horror thriller, but it’s also a deceptively smart send-up of the same, ensconcing Erin in the hall of fame with her spiritual sisters, Laurie, Nancy, Sidney and all the others.