"You're Next" doesn't break new ground in the horror genre, but it sticks to rules that work. Director Adam Wingard ("A Horrible Way to Die") and screenwriter Simon Barrett ("Dead Birds") demonstrate a firm grasp on their material, delivering a tightly-wound survival story replete with disarming humor that holds the whole bloody mess together.
After a morbid prologue in which two unnamed characters meet their doom at the hands of an unseen menace, "You're Next" settles into a family reunion at an isolated vacation home deep in the woods. The affluent heads of the Crampton household, parents Paul (Rob Moran) and Barbara (Aubrey Davidson), invite their grown children and their respective significant others to a dinner party that quickly turns grim.
Before the danger begins, however, Wingard and Barrett neatly set up the family dynamic. Klutzy college professor Crispian (AJ Bowen) shows up with his levelheaded girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson). Aimee (Amy Seimetz) brings her indie filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (horror director Ti West), while the neurotic Felix (Nicholas Tucci) has the mysterious goth Zee (Wendy Glenn) in tow. Joe Swanberg rounds out the cast as the smarmy Drake.
Not that you need to keep track of all of them, because the body count rises fast. Arrows stream through the window and put the entire household into shock mode. The stakes rise once they realize their cell phones don't work. An attempt to bolt from the home results in another ghastly death. Anonymous goons wearing animal masks and bearing sharp instruments routinely emerge from the shadows to slash away while the survivors' numbers dwindle. But then the tables turn in a most exciting fashion.
The murderers didn't count on Aussie outback veteran Erin's fast-paced survival skills. Setting traps and taking advantage of her environment (I assure you that a kitchen blender has never been used this creatively), she keeps the masked killers on their toes and shifts the power dynamic, upending the mysterious scheme behind their attack. Tonal shifts from horror to humor abound, such as when the initial attack results in a barely-alive Joe Swanberg hobbling around with an arrow lodged in his back.
In between those close encounters and the grisly death scenes, Barret's script rests on highly amusing banter. An exchange between West and Swanberg about the purpose of underground film festivals--"Do they show movies underground?" Swanberg asks--highlights the self-awareness that keeps "You're Next" in motion. Never taking its scares too seriously, "You're Next" barrels forward with an ongoing eagerness to please its core contingency. (That would be anyone willing to enjoy a well-timed fright, of which there are many.)
While the middle section of "You're Next" loses something in the redundant line-up of screaming and bleeding, it heads toward a succession of satisfying developments in its climax that exploit Erin's badass potential to the fullest amount. On the whole, "You're Next" is a solid entry in the mysterious-killer-on-the-loose formula. The filmmakers have crafted seriously derivative fun that plays like "Scream" molded with "Cabin Fever" in the twisted universe of "Final Destination." It's a familiar ride, but a relentlessly wild one as well.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A major buzz title in the Midnight Madness section at TIFF, "You're Next" will likely find a welcome home at a midsize genre label, such as Magnet or IFC Midnight, and should perform especially well on VOD.