There are certain movies that simply demand to be seen with an audience. Comedy and horror films typically benefit the most from a group setting; being able to sit in the dark, screaming, shrieking, and/or laughing your head off alongside a group of perfect strangers undeniably increases one's enjoyment of a film (it's for this reason that I believe movie theaters are never truly going to go extinct, the way some cultural commentators keep predicting). The communal experience makes these movies better, and the supremely entertaining horror flick "You're Next" is a definitive example of this.
Horror fans have been waiting for this film's arrival in theaters for a while now. Completed in 2011, "You're Next" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival that same year to nearly ecstatic reviews, instigating a studio bidding war before the film was ultimately purchased by Lionsgate. The film followed that with a similarly rapturous reception at the horror film festival Fantastic Fest, and then: nothing. Lionsgate inexplicably decided to shelve the film until now. Hopefully the studio's boneheaded move does nothing to sabotage the film's chances of finding an audience. While it's not the game-changing savior of the horror genre that early reviews hinted at ("Cabin in the Woods," oddly also released by Lionsgate, was closer in that regard), it is an absolute blast.
As the film begins, Crispian Davidson (AJ Bowen) is bringing his new girlfriend, Erin (Aussie actress Sharni Vinson), to meet his WASPy family for the first time, as they come together at the Davidsons' ostentatiously enormous home to celebrate AJ's parents wedding anniversary. The gathering also functions as a reunion of sorts, since the family hasn't seen each other in quite some time. It's soon apparent why, as Crispian and his brothers and sisters waste no time with pleasantries, and immediately begin bickering and sniping at one another. Simon Barrett, the writer of "You're Next," nails the dysfunctional family dynamic in these early scenes, perfectly capturing the passive-aggressive tendencies that can emerge when blood relations get together.
But we're not here for an insightful portrayal of family drama, and it's not long before the reunion is broken up in harrowing fashion, when an arrow comes crashing through the window, impaling sis' new boyfriend and absolutely ruining the family's dinner. It's soon apparent that the Davidsons are under attack from a sadistic and determined group of homicidal maniacs clad in combat gear and animal masks. A wrench is thrown into their plans, however, when it turns out that Erin is not as helpless as she first appears. It's here that the film detours from its conventional setup to veer off in a direction that feels new. But to say any more about the plot would be doing a huge disservice to this tight, tension-filled exercise in genre terror.
Director Adam Wingard forgoes the traditionally grim tone that comes with most entries in the home-invasion sub-genre of horror, delivering visceral thrills, complete with a strong, ass-kicking female lead. Unlike most characters of the Final Girl archetype, who don't really rise to the occasion until somewhere around the last reel, Erin makes with the heroics straight out the gate. Her resourcefulness is explained in a throwaway bit of dialogue where she mentions the fact that she grew up on a survivalist compound in the outback, but it doesn't really matter: watching her start to fight back against her tormentors, in increasingly creative ways, is all the explanation we really need.
Wingard fills out the supporting cast well, utilizing his filmmaker buddies, including mumblecore director Joe Swanberg ("Hannah Takes the Stairs") as Crispian's smarmy older brother and Ti West ("The Innkeepers," "The House of the Devil") as the ill-fated boyfriend. The Davidson family matriarch is played, in a fantastic bit of casting, by horror movie favorite Barbara Crampton ("Re-Animator"). The cast delivers everything you could want from a horror movie performance; the actors infuse their characters with enough personality to give us a sense of their identities in as little screentime as possible (all the better to get on with the mayhem).
There are plenty of big laughs in the film, especially as the sibling bickering doesn't stop once the carnage begins. I wouldn't go quite so far as to call "You're Next" a horror-comedy, but the filmmakers know that humor doesn't necessarily have to come at the expense of tension, and in fact can often enhance it. Even more impressively, that tension doesn't dissipate once we eventually learn the attacker's motives. Wingard proves an expert craftsman, skillfully keeping control of the film's tone all the way through. It's not terribly original or complex, but in his hands, "You're Next" is a bloody good time