Aug. 23--Gory horror films virtually always try to give us kicks by having a masked slasher wield a knife or machete until the hero/heroine does or doesn't cut him down. Plot, characterization and humor are not only expendable but extraneous: They could get in the way of the gut-churning attacks.
"You're Next" toys with that stereotype to good effect. It exceeds my tolerance for spilled blood (which isn't high) after half an hour. But just as I was starting to think of it as a "motiveless psychos terrorize rich family" movie (a la "The Purge"), it gave me good reasons to watch.
There are indeed three well-armed killers outside a secluded mansion. The film opens with them slaying the two nearest neighbors, then shifts to the grounds owned by Paul and Barbara (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton, whose casting is a homage: She had the female lead in the gory/scary/ funny "Re-Animator" of 1985.)
Their four kids and the kids' four partners have come to town for a reunion, and they face the machetes and crossbow of the attackers with varying degrees of brains and courage. One of the girlfriends (Sharni Vinson) grew up a survivalist in the Outback of Australia and demonstrates unexpected self-defense skills.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (who did episodes of the horror anthology "V/H/S") haven't given us any brain-puzzlers, but their plot twists do explain what's happening and why. Actors' deadpan reactions sometimes raise laughs, especially when one of them charges around with an arrow in his back. (I figured most of the humor was intentional.)
The handheld camera, itself a cliche in "realistic" horror now, stops just about the time it gets annoying, and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo switches to a fixed camera and sophisticated lighting. A basement scene, shot with a repeated flash that provides the feeling of a strobe effect, has the creepiest vibe.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the movie is how little it has in common with a lot of horror.
It's not social commentary: The survivalist seems to come from a poor family into a squabbling group of rich siblings, but no message about class or privilege comes through. We figure out pretty quickly that the deaths in the movie have a point, which they never do in torture porn. And we're not asked to root for likable people -- except the resilient survivalist -- or take sides, except against the killers.
I have no idea why this movie sat on the shelf for two years, especially after getting a second-place audience award in the Midnight Madness section of last summer's Toronto Film Festival. Maybe Lionsgate didn't know how to market a more-complicated-than-usual outing, but the studio has dumped it at the end of a disappointing summer. I'll be curious to see whether audiences seek it out.
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