This review was originally published on September 27, 2011 as part of Film.com's coverage of Fantastic Fest 2011.
One of the clever things about "You're Next" is the way it starts out making you think it's not going to be clever at all. The prologue is a standard exercise in cinematic bloodshed, and it's followed by a married couple arriving at their isolated vacation home in the woods -- the setup for what could be a generic home-invasion thriller.
What we get instead is a puckish horror comedy that earns the distinction of being a "crowd-pleaser" without acquiring any of the negative connotations. This story of a dysfunctional family that persists in squabbling even under the most dire of circumstances has elements of satire, and Simon Barrett's witty screenplay subverts a few horror tropes. But mostly the film is content to make fun, smart use of the genre's conventions, and in the process plays the audience like a fiddle. Like a bloody, maimed fiddle!
The married couple (Barbara Crampton and Rob Moran) are celebrating their 35th anniversary with their four grown children and the children's significant others. It's been a while since the entire family was together, but it doesn't take long for the old rivalries to emerge. Crispian (AJ Bowen), a college instructor, is dating Erin (Sharni Vinson), who is younger than he is. His brother Drake (Joe Swanberg) is a smug jerk with a wife (Margaret Laney) to match. Their sister, Aimee (Amy Seimetz), has a pretentious filmmaker boyfriend (Ti West) who's an easy target for dinner-table mockery. The youngest sibling, Felix (Nicholas Tucci), is a screw-up with a sullen girlfriend (Wendy Glenn).
After several hilarious minutes of family members needling one another, the mood is spoiled by an assault on the house. The attackers, wearing creepy-cute animal masks, favor crossbows and knives over guns, and they don't appear interested in leaving any survivors. What was once a dinner for 10 very quickly becomes a dinner for fewer. Don't worry, though -- even while wounded and dying, the siblings are able to argue about who's the fastest runner.
What follows is an energetic mix of "Scream"-like dark comedy, senseless violence, satisfying surprises, and good old-fashioned mayhem. Barrett and the film's director, Adam Wingard, previously collaborated on "A Horrible Way to Die", a fine, grim horror tale with one of the best titles in movie history. "You're Next" is just as dark, but now the atrocities are played for laughs -- which, in a way, makes them seem even darker. Wingard, while occasionally overdoing the shaky-cam effect and employing some unnecessary stylistic flourishes, also does a stellar job balancing the gore with the giggles so that neither one overwhelms the other. (He's a whiz at capturing creative kills, too. There's one in particular that I think is destined for Hall of Fame status.)
I wouldn't swear in court that every aspect of the story stands up to close examination, and it's tricky to have so many characters confined to such a relatively small space. One important and very loud sequence of events occurs in the living room while the family patriarch is investigating another matter -- all without him hearing it, and all in the time it takes him to ascend the staircase. In another sequence, someone is discovered to have been murdered in an upstairs bedroom, yet it's a long time before anyone realizes that this means one of the attackers must still be in the house.
We can probably chalk all of that up to the characters being traumatized and terrified. Scrutinizing the film is only academic anyway. While you're watching it, you're too busy enjoying the hell out of it -- laughing at the snarky performances, cheering as heroes emerge, recoiling from the spattered blood -- to care about details.
SCORE: 8.0 / 10