When Adam Wingard's You're Next made its world premiere as part of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival's Midnight Madness program, the young horror auteur confessed to having been inspired in part by Wes Craven's postmodern slasher classic Scream. Given the semi-satirical tone of this bloody home-invasion shocker, as well as Wingard's talent for toying with horror iconography, that influence is plain to see. While You're Next is indeed a machete-wielding crowd-pleaser of the highest order, horror hounds would do well to tone down the hyperbole when howling its praises: Despite possessing an eye for brutal kills and a good ear for barbed dialogue, Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett do more to reinforce genre conventions here than they do to reinvent them -- a factor that could lead to a backlash among those whose expectations have been grotesquely inflated by two solid years of hype.
Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey Davison (Barbara Crampton) are about to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and they've invited their grown-up children out to the country to share in the revelry. The first to arrive are Crispian (A.J. Bowen) and his new girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson), but it isn't long before the rest of the family file in and the party gets under way. Later, the latent sibling rivalry between Crispian and his older brother Drake (Joe Swanberg) flares up at the dinner table, sparking a heated argument. Just then, a crossbow arrow blasts through a window, killing one of the guests, and panic sets in. The family are under attack. But who are the savage invaders wearing eerie farm-animal masks, and what is their motive for slaughtering everyone in the house? No one is safe as the blood starts to flow, but Erin is determined to see the dawn and she's got the survival skills to strike back at her attackers with deadly force.
Watching a film by Adam Wingard, it's obvious that a love of horror flows freely through the director's veins. Starting with his 2007 feature debut Home Sick (starring horror icons Bill Moseley and Tom Towles, as well as scream queen Tiffany Shepis), Wingard has displayed a natural talent for the filmmaking process, and an endearing, druggy idiosyncrasy that sets him apart from many of his serious-minded contemporaries. Hearing Wingard talk, it's obvious that he has both a passion for his art and a strong vision for each project he takes on. Likewise, his twisted sense of humor has a way of seeping into his films, subtly reminding us that it's okay to laugh at the mayhem unfolding before us. We're ostensibly in on the joke, and by letting us know that, Wingard creates an unspoken bond among viewers that effectively reinforces the communal moviegoing experience. It's his ability to bond his audience through fear and laughter that makes You're Next the perfect slasher pic to savor with a rowdy midnight crowd -- one that is willing to forgive the film its occasional flaws (such as the electricity in the home swiftly coming back on mere moments after it's been cut) in favor of embracing the purely visceral thrills (of which it provides many).
Interestingly, Wingard's sense of community also extends beyond the screen, because in addition to being genre-savvy enough to cast Crampton (of Re-Animator fame), House of the Devil director Ti West, indie-horror innovator Larry Fessenden, and mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg in You're Next, a peek behind the eerie masks reveals a loyalty to the stars of his earlier, less conventional films as well. Even screenwriter Barrett gets in on the fun by joining the masked invaders in their mayhem. And while the performances in You're Next are uneven at best, it's curious that in his role as the brownnosing, pill-popping older sibling, Swanberg should emerge as one of the most memorable members of the cast -- not only does he deliver some of the film's best dialogue, but his flair for carrying a sight gag is second to none. And later, once the purpose of the invasion becomes clear, Barrett's play on the familiar "final girl" trope gives us a kick-ass heroine to rally behind.
Seemingly hitting screens at the tail end of the home-invasion trend that kicked off with Michael Haneke's Funny Games in 1997 (and has roots that reach at least as far back as William Wyler's 1955 thriller The Desperate Hours), You're Next may not do for this particular horror subgenre what Scream did for the slasher film, but to be fair, Wes Craven was working from decades of experience at that point -- Wingard and Barrett are just getting started. If this is a prime example of the thrills that this talented duo are capable of delivering at this point in their respective careers, horror fans could be witnessing the genesis of the next Craven, Argento, or Carpenter here, and that alone is something worth getting excited about.