Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) and Paul Davison (Rob Moran) decide to celebrate their wedding anniversary by inviting their four children and their significant others to a family reunion at their remote weekend estate. But the family reunion goes awry when their home comes under siege by a mask-wearing team of crossbow-bearing assailants. The family has no idea who’s attacking them, why they’re under attack or if the attackers are inside or outside the cavernous, creaking house. All they know for certain is that nobody is safe. (From LionsGate’s official synopsis)
Like Drew Godard’s Cabin in the Woods (2011) and Jonathan Levine’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006), Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011/13) sat on a shelf, unreleased for so long that it developed a cult following without being seen by more than a few preview/festival audiences. Also like those films, it was a meta-textual, postmodern re-evaluation of the genre, though not in the full-force parodical manner of Godard’s ultra-savvy movie. You’re Next is closer to a tongue-in-cheek, occasionally funny combination of locked-room mystery and home invasion horror. When it was finally released (two years after its completion), it was met with comparatively underwhelming praise from the mainstream audiences and the horror fan community. Having seen it at a preview myself, I now admit that I may have been a bit too excited to demand others enjoy it.
Leading up to this, Wingard’s pre-You’re Next cinematic output had been spotty at best, barely sitting above his indie contemporaries, if at all. His first feature, Home Sick (2007), was an absurdly messy homage to the horror genre that only really worked when star Tiffany Shepis was firing on all cylinders. It was a half-decent early effort, but his work didn’t really improve over his next couple of feature releases. Pop Skull (2007) and A Horrible Way to Die (2010), were awkward, but relatively ambitious, and his V/H/S (2012) or V/H/S/2 (2013) entries were weak among the series’ weakest (especially in the case of V/H/S/2, which is otherwise a big improvement on the first anthology). The ABCs of Death segment he made with You’re Next co-writer Simon Barrett was funny and clever, but alone not enough to turn around an entire career’s worth of mediocrity. Given all of that, tt didn’t seem likely that Wingard could pull off slick mainstream horror any better than he pulled off low budget indie horror. Imagine my surprise when You’re Next ended up being quite good and self-assured.
So how did Wingard and Barrett make such a quantum leap in such a short time? I was pretty baffled until my buddy (edit: and now Editor in Chief of Fangoria Magazine), Phil Nobile, Jr., explained the surprising lack of praise to me:
You’re Next sat on the shelf after super-positive word if mouth, just like Cabin in the Woods, so people expected it to be that same kind of next level horror reinvention. Instead, it's the horror version of a perfectly-crafted pop song. People are mad that it's not The White Album.
Sure enough, You’re Next’s lack of complication is both its strength, as well as the reason it may not be remembered outside of a small cult following in another decade or so. The twist behind You’re Next turned out to be that there wasn’t really any twist at all. In this case, “simplicity” and a lack of Cabin in the Woods-level puzzle-boxery shouldn’t imply that Wingard and Barrett made a bad or stupid movie. You’re Next has enough pleasant surprises and charmingly strange touches to sustain its by-the-numbers plot and usher it through what could’ve been awkward switch ups between funny and scary tones. It takes the utmost care, yet rarely feels labored, blending the glossy scares of late ‘90s thrillers (the ones made in the Scream vein) with the chaotic, shaky-cam grime of modern indie horror, making a film that is at times appropriately over-the-top without risking the basic reality of the situation or the all-important R-rating. It’s the kind of wacky violence that gorehounds and normal teenagers can appreciate together. The scary stuff is slightly muted, due to its skew towards dark comedy, but it rarely feels like punches are being pulled artificially for the sake of a bigger audience. The gore is funny, but the bigger laughs come from the character interactions. The naturalistic and sardonic dialogue is loaded with wry, knowing jokes that are bolstered by impossibly catty sibling rivalry.
Wingard, of course, hires some of his mumblegore buddies to fill out his cast, though he limits himself to a handful of on-the-nose cast members so as to not appear to “stunty” with the casting, including Barbara Crampton, the scream queen of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond, Joe Swanberg (writer/director of LOL and Drinking Buddies), Amy Seimetz (writer/director of Sun Don’t Shine), Ti West (writer/director of House of the Devil and The Innkeepers), Larry Fessenden (writer/director of Wendigo and Habit), and Barrett himself (though his lines are mostly grunts and shouts). West’s appearance facilitates the funniest joke in the entire movie, where Swanberg, who plays the douche bag older brother, mercilessly teases West as a scarf-wearing, pretentious filmmaker. Swanberg sarcastically states that he thinks “commercials are the ultimate form of film expression,” eliciting a grumpy response from West who, in case you didn’t know, is a scarf-wearing, pretentious filmmaker in real life.
You’re Next was shot using Red One MX digital cameras. Wingard and cinematographer Andrew Palmero occasionally embrace some of the format’s softness, but it isn’t an obviously digitally shot film in terms of the image’s crispness and the presence of grain (when I saw it in theaters, it was a 35mm projection, so I just assumed it was a 35mm film at the time). The focus is pulled tightly throughout, creating sharp foreground details and only rarely opening out into complex backgrounds. The ‘digital look’ is relegated to the film’s color palette, which is graded enough to appear stylistically unnatural. The brighter indoor scenes are caked in browns and tans and, most of the time, this palette squeezes out the other hues. The highlights are somewhat flattened by their yellowish quality, but the black levels are still pure enough to create effective depth. Various shades of blue do occasionally escape the brown/tan vortex and these go on to help define the darker scenes (especially the oddly punchy powder blues). Reds are somewhat ‘marooned’ (which is I guess what you get when you mix blue and tan). Though the palette’s style is (mostly) strictly enforced, all but the darkest sequences still feature nicely separated colors without many notable banding effects.
The Blu-ray comes fitted the usual, uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Like most scary movies that run on jump-scares, You’re Next is meant to be viewed with the volume cranked high. The stereo/surround effects and directional support are minimal, but the wide dynamic ranges are crisp and clear during both mumbled dialogue and ear-piercing screams. These ranges are usually utilized for the sake of a good startle, but the volume contrast is also good for a joke, like the bit where a killer’s big scary musical cue is cut short by the final girl’s antics and replaced by the mundane splats of a handheld meat tenderizer against bone. The center track dialogue is occasionally distorted, specifically when lots of characters start screaming and yelling over each other, but it sounded basically the same in theaters, so this is likely not a compression issue. Mads Heldtberg’s score is at its best when relentlessly undercutting the scary scenes with driving electronic percussion and throbbing bass. The music is spread widely over the stereo and surround channels, creating warm, swirling walls of sound. The Dwight Twilley Band’s "Looking for the Magic" is the one pop music addition to the track and becomes a repeating motif anytime the neighbor’s house is visited, where it is stuck on repeat. The sound designers have fun playing with the song’s fidelity, depending on camera placement and the mental state of the character hearing it (when a character is knocked for a loop, the music vibrates and fades).
Commentary with director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett – The director and writer discuss the basics of production on a relatively serious slant. Here, we learn about changes made to the original script, attempts to keep the effects practical, budget constraints, the team’s previous films, and the process of creating a ‘conventional’ thriller/horror movie. This is a full-bodied track that is rarely screen-specific and a continuously engaging experience that often feels more like a podcast on modern horror than a commentary track for You’re Next.
Commentary with Wingard & Barrett and actresses Sharni Vinson & Barbara Crampton – This is a more entertaining track and is especially amusing when the filmmakers’ attempts to keep the discussion more technical are derailed by more personable anecdotes. There’s not a lot of overlap between the two tracks – not surprisingly, this one covers general casting (including changing the lead’s nationality to Australian after meeting Vinson), building the characters, and working with actors.
No Ordinary Home Invasion: The Making Of You’re Next (11:40, HD) – A decent EPK that includes interviews with Wingard, Barrett, cinematographer Andrew Palmero, and cast members Vinson, Crampton, A. J. Bowen & Nicolas Tucci, alongside behind-the-scenes footage and storyboards.
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