There’s a moment near the climax of You’re Next, the plebeian slasher-fest from indie director Adam Wingard, that subtly evokes Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, specifically the infamous farmhouse kitchen sequence, in which the master of suspense examined just how hard it is to kill a person. (It takes time and effort.) Wingard’s scene is not as overt, but the reference is there, plain as day. It’s probably the most esoteric nod in You’re Next, which at times feels like a compendium of horror-film homages. It’s so incredibly unoriginal, it’s original in its unoriginality. To be fair, it’s practically impossible to re-sod a genre so barren, it qualifies as menopausal. The last director to even attempt something fresh was Wes Craven, whose first Scream toyed with the usual conventions by poking them in the eye with a sharp, playful, lethal stick.
Scream is, of course, referenced in You’re Next, as is Craven’s iconic yet virtually unwatchable Last House on the Left. Wingard also blows bloody kisses to John Carpenter (in particular, that director’s affection for grating, mono-tonal electronic scores), the once-ubiquitous Friday the 13th series, and just about every other horror film that’s shoved a mask on a machete/chainsaw/cleaver-wielding psycho. At least the animal masks deployed in Wingard’s film are moderately effective — the tiger, lamb, and fox are at once adorable and unnerving, and a simple cock of the head gives off a kind of surreal personality that the unmasked performers in film uniformly lack. Indeed, the biggest shortcoming of You’re Next are the blockheaded, listless performances. Could Wingard even bothered to have found actors who understand that acting is more than just showing up on the day of the shoot and hoping for the best? The worst performance, hands-down, hails from soap-opera veteran Barbara Crampton, who might as well be portraying a cardboard box with lips. Her family matriarch doesn’t die soon enough.
Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett follow the customary path forged by every slasher film that’s come our way since Carpenter’s Halloween. In this instance, a trio of masked psychos pick off — for no apparent reason other than the sport of it — members of an upper-crusty family gathered for a weekend at a remote country home. The film wastes little time in set-up and pretty much gets down to the business of wanton, ruthless savagery. Once the killings start, they come fast and furious, yet even the movie’s startling (and profoundly idiotic) twists can’t stop ennui from inevitably settling in. By the time things get really nasty, the movie has worn out its welcome, draining itself of any potential fun. Wingard seems incapable of sustaining the promise he set up with a magnificent, meticulously crafted opening sequence — a sequence that sets up a false promise of originality to follow. The film only surpasses its mediocrity in two instances, the first during a spectacular dinner-table sequence that shifts from petty sibling bickering to full-on pandemonium the instant an arrow lodges into the forehead of a visiting guest, and the second in a startling, brilliant scene that evokes, hilariously, Chariots of Fire.
Most of the killings are of the standard garden variety — machete, hatchet, cross-bow, multiple screwdrivers deployed as push-pins — but a few exhibit ingenuity, including a stunner involving a piano wire and another, an everyday kitchen appliance utilized in a manner that Kitchen-Aid would almost certainly not endorse.
The advance buzz on You’re Next hailed it as groundbreaking. Early reports noted it was so terrifying and brutal, some audience members were rushing out out of the theater midway-through. I don’t doubt for a moment people walked out. I just suspect their motives were to find something better to do with their lives.