“It’s such a fine line between stupid and…” “…clever”, fictional cock-rockers David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel once mused in 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. Of course, at the time they were referring to the misogynistic minefield that is heavy-metal album art, but it’s an aphorism that’s equally applicable to the slasher movie, another misfit of pop-culture with a reputation for a fanbase with a permanently adolescent mindset: a reputation that’s almost certainly unfair, but then again, it’s hard to imagine even the most academic admirer of slashers arguing that there’s no fire accompanying that particular smoke.
The reason it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever when it comes to slashers – or, more accurately, good and bad – is because it’s so dependent on both formula (a lot of people will die) and exploitation (they’re going to die really horribly) that if at any point the filmmakers resort to cliche or cheap ways to get a rise out of you, it’s very easy for the film to feel grubby and cynical. This is particularly true if there’s (un)healthy doses of the misogyny that horror movies are still constantly plagued by, or the raw sadism that came to characterise the genre in recent years with the likes of the Saw and Hostel films. Lazily-made slashers are the filmmaking equivalent of a guy in the pub tricking you into watching footage of someone getting beheaded on his smartphone – not somebody you want to spend two hours (or even minutes) with.
On the other hand, if the filmmaker is engaged, willing to experiment and, most importantly, knows what they’re doing, there is so much joy to be had is submitting to these exercises in pure exploitation. People like Hitchcock, Carpenter, Craven, Bava et al are all utterly manipulative – the viewer is essentially a mark for their bag of cinematic cons and tricks – but the reveals, shocks and misdirections present in their films are all executed with such impeccable timing and skill that you cannot help but be swept away by them. The best slasher movies have a visceral rhythm about them that makes them just about undeniable, and probably one of the most underrated of all genres when it comes to demonstrating pure directing prowess.
All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that You’re Next is a really good slasher film, and it’s largely because Adam Wingard, previously responsible for the decent A Horrible Way To Die and the slightly limp wrap-around segment of V/H/S, directs the hell out of regular collaborator Simon Barrett’s fun, playful script, and never tires of finding new ways to shock, surprise and entertain you.
Here’s the set-up: Crispian Davidson (AJ Bowen) takes new girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) to meet his well-to-do yet highly dysfunctional family at a getaway to a country mansion, where his parents are celebrating their wedding anniversary. The group sit down to dinner together and immediately begin trading passive-aggressive, painfully awkward barbs with one another, only for the sniping to be interrupted by one of the group getting a more traditionally aggressive, painfully awkward arrow in the head. It soon becomes apparent that the house is under attack from a malevolent force that will not stop until all of them are dead – but one of the group isn’t prepared to go down without a fight.
One thing that immediately separates You’re Next from the majority of its home invasion brethren is how insanely fun it is: it’s a genre that is inextricably linked with sadism and bleakness (Straw Dogs, Inside, Lakeview Terrace, Funny Games for God’s sake), but Wingard’s film sidesteps around this by making humour almost as vital an element as the horror. Much like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, the film begins with some well-judged cringe-comedy (with many of the laughs coming from fellow V/H/S director and mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg as Crispian’s asshole brother) which expertly orients the sympathies of the viewer by establishing the characters and family dynamics in just a couple of scenes, leaving more screen time for the ensuing carnage. It’s also worth mentioning that the acting across the board is a notch above most other films in the genre, and there is at least one breakout performance here: to say exactly who, however, would give away more about the way the film plays out than you really need to know.
While it’s a funny movie, it is certainly no slouch in the horror department, either: Wingard is a director who, along with fellow indie filmmakers like Scott Derrickson, James Wan and Ti West (who appears here apparently playing a parody of himself), take pride in crafting clever scares that go beyond something suddenly appearing accompanied by a loud noise – although there is naturally some of that too. The first half of You’re Next, where the nature of the threat is at its most indistinct, is genuinely scary, with some memorably creepy images and a number moments likely to send the popcorn of nervous viewers flying.
It’s a testament to Wingard and Barrett’s skill that at exactly the moment when the intensity begins to let up and necessity dictates that we learn more about the threat the family face, the film smoothly shifts gear and becomes another proposition entirely, without missing a beat. While the scares in the second half perhaps become less intense, the relentlessly twisty plot, some surprisingly poignant moments, and progressively outrageous bloodshed more than compensates.
If you’re nitpicking you could say that You’re Next is essentially a collection of setpieces – although then this is a criticism you can apply to 99 percent of slasher movies – but the important thing is that there is not a duff one in the whole batch. Nearly every scene is built around a brilliant idea, where most modern horrors are lucky to have more than a couple; the result is one of the most confident scary movies in years, one that deserves to be seen on the big screen with as big an audience as you can find.
Like the best of the slasher genre, it perfectly straddles the border between stupid and clever, before turning everything up to 11. David and Nigel would love it.
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