This past weekend, I had a reaction to a film that was so counter to the pre-hype that I'm still struggling to understand how I saw the same movie as those who were singing its praises. For about two years now, You're Next has been hailed as the next big thing in horror. Critics have been mentioning it in the same breath as Scream, which still stands for me as one of the most ingenious horror-thriller screenplays of all time.
If you've followed my blog for a long time, you know I'm a fan of horror films, or at least good horror. I also have read a lot of horror scripts over the years, many of them NOT so good. (That's just the nature of the job. Most of what I've read en total is not very good.) If you were to audit my Netflix history, you're likely to find an overrepresentation of horror-thrillers there, including a lot of movies that probably were panned upon initial release. For some reason, I can enjoy doing an autopsy on a bad horror or thriller movie in a way I can't from a drama.
Most internet critics are huge horror guys and I guarantee they've had to sit through a far greater number of bad horror films than I have. If anything, they should be more disgruntled than I am with all of the cliched elements that crop up all too frequently. So when the flock says, "This is an amazing horror film," I feel safe trusting that as an informed opinion.
So that's why I don't get how people who've sat through the same bag of tricks time and again can come out of this movie not weary of many reused tropes. My take on the film is this: It's a midnight movie. It's not a game changer. It's got a few inventive kills and the lead heroine is pretty badass. I'll give the film credit for that - when Sharni Vinson's character really starts cutting loose and taking names about half-way through the film, it's pretty cool to see.
But for me, that's not enough to overcome some of the faults here. You're Next is just loaded with elements that kept ejecting me from the film. The first act was slow, but when Vinson's character sprung to life, my faith in the film was renewed. The last act or so really burned a lot of goodwill and over the last two days I've found the more I revisit it, the less impressed I am by it. I don't even think it's a case of the film being built up so much that nothing could match the expectation. For me, it's that it includes some elements that really don't work.
What might those be? I'm glad you asked.
Unrelated Kill to Kick off the Film - This one really irks me when I see it in screenplays. It might be the biggest "bad script cliche" in the horror genre. Typically, the writer presents a brutal scene with a minor character - in most cases, rarely mentioned again - being offed in gruesome fashion. Bonus points if bare breasts can be involved somehow. It's a scene that's often there solely to announce "Hey! This is a Horror film!"
I can almost understand the motivation for including this at the script level. It's important to grab an exec's attention early, so you might as well include a scene that defines the genre of the film. What I don't understand is that by the time the movie has been shot and marketed, the audience knows the kind of film they've bought a ticket for. They're not ignorant of the fact it's a horror film, so why does that have to be spelled out in painstaking detail for them within the first three minutes?
However, a good writer should be able to find a way to find a way to make that scene serve a larger purpose. In Scream, the opening kill is not only the inciting incident, but it goes a long way to defining the killer and his M.O. Scream is a completely different movie without that opening. Most (bad) horror scripts I read treat the inagural dismemberment as completely extraneous.
You're Next falls victim to this. I can't figure out what larger purpose the opening kills serve. You could say, "Well, the neighbors had to be killed so that anyone who escapes the house has nowhere to run." While that's technically true, the creators made a choice to have those neighbors exist in the first place. It would have been just as easy to set our lead character's home out in the middle of nowhere. Another issue is that those dead bodies never become relevant. There isn't a scene where the lead characters explore the first victims' house and get the sense something is up. We - the audience - know that a killer's out there, but our characters remain blithely unaware of this fact until the first of their number meets the business end of an arrow.
(This also exposes the "You're Next" blood-written warning as a completely extraneous element. Why do the killers even bother with that at all, let alone for two people who they're offing just as in inconvenience?)
I've heard the vague justification that other neighbors had to be killed in order to give credence to the killers' cover story that this was just a random spree killing. That's really flimsy and it suggests an insanely high degree of sociopathy on the part of the killers. Which brings me to...
The killers' motivations and the explanation of them - I've already dumped some spoilers, but an extra warning here - I'm going to be discussing everything about the ending. Last chance to turn back.
For more than half the film, we know very little about the killers and why they are engaging in this home invasion and murder. They're personality-less beings behind Halloween masks. In real life, random, senseless spree killings happen, but in movies we almost always know some aspect of what provokes these killers. Even if the motives border on pure insanity, it's common convention that the film will attempt at some point to answer the question "why?"
Smarter viewers will realize once the siege is underway that every character we've met is either already dead or among the prospective victims. Once we're halfway through the film and have not found out anything about the killers, it's a good bet that the killers are going to be revealed as having some connection with at least one seemingly innocent victim. Someone in that house is going to be revealed as a collaborator, if not a mastermind - and there's little shock when that happens.
Nine times out of ten that collaborator will turn out to be the person who seemingly dies, but who's death remains unconfirmed on-screen. There's a point where Crispian, who happens to be the boyfriend of our protagonist Erin, decides to make a run for it despite the risks of being taken out by one of the killers. After that, nothing is heard from him for a while so the characters assume he's dead. Strange how we don't see him die, right? Gee, I wonder who might pop up in the third act.
Scream was brilliant because it anticipated how the audience was going to scrutinize the suspects. It pointed a giant neon figure at the first suspect, then seemingly exonerated him. It introduced that element of doubt that kept the audience guessing. ("They wouldn't be that obvious, would they? But maybe that's what they want us to think. Maybe he's a red herring. I'm not going to fall for that. Or maybe that's what they want me to think!") The genius of that kind of writing is that it engages the audience so that when the explanation comes, it's like having the final few pieces of a puzzle snap in place.
In contrast, You're Next mostly holds back those puzzle pieces and then dumps them out at once while assembling them. Sibling Felix and his girlfriend Zee are revealed to be working with the killers stalking their family. In the second-worst expositional dialogue I've seen in a while, Felix recaps the plan with one of the killers. It's a scene that mostly exists just as an infodump for the audience. The sequence lacks the tension necessary to make that reveal anything more than an explanation.
So Felix has concocted this plan to murder his parents and his siblings so that he can inherit the family fortune. The family's wealth was established earlier, I'll give the film that much. What's lacking is any sort of rational motivation for going THAT far to get it. Why now? And what sort of a person would be party to a violent slaughter that is intended to murder both parents, two siblings, and at least one of the sibling's significant others'?
Unsurprisingly, Crispian turns up alive and as the mastermind of the plan. Remember how I said the earlier scene was the second-worst bit of exposition dialogue I've seen in a while? This scene is the worst. In defense of the writer, the acting and the staging of the scene do this infodump no favors either. There's kind of an infodump at the end of Scream too, but the audience has been given just enough information that receiving these finally nuggets prompts an "A-ha! That's how it all fits!" There's not enough foreshadowing to make You're Next's reveal work in the same way.
Here's what I like about Crispian's plan - the notion that Erin was meant to survive and be an unbiased witness to the carnage. Her role as the Final Girl is essential to the plan working. That's actually a pretty sly move, and it's effective how Erin's badassery in the situation throws a wrench into the whole scheme. As much as I complain that there was a lot here I've seen before, that's one thing I don't really recall having been done.
I still can't buy what would possess two brothers to murder their whole family, even for an inheritance. The film doesn't really hint at any existing tension among the relatives at all, certainly no more than the average family. For a spree killing that extreme, that brutal, there HAS to be some personal element to it. This is amplified when you consider TWO siblings had to collude on this plan. Maybe I could buy one of them being batshit crazy and sociopathic, but two?
(Also, if Erin was meant to be the unbiased witness, what does that mean for Zee? Was she supposed to be killed? Is there any element of the plan that doesn't work if Erin was absent and Zee played the role of the Final Girl? What is Erin's survival going to accomplish that Zee's wouldn't? Both of them are dating the key surviving conspirators, so if the police suspect an inside job, wouldn't they assume Erin to be a part of it as well?)
You know what might have worked for me? If the initial plan seemed to be all four siblings plotting the murder of their parents, only to have the plan involve the siblings turn on each other in succession. Think of it like a long-form version of the bank robbery in The Dark Knight, where the participants are killed by their collaborators after fulfilling their roles. (Giving the siblings a more concrete motivation for the slaughter would be a must in this situation. It can't JUST be about the money.) I might have also gone for a Ladykillers scenario where the collaborators were perpetually taken out by other means too.
For the life of me, I just can't wrap my brain around the motivation for these two to kill everyone else. We're just not told enough about those relationships where that is comprehensible to me.
On a more minor note, the second act is marred by the character behaving rather stupidly. There's a point where someone is left alone and murdered in an upstairs bedroom. When the survivors find out, that should pretty well indicate that the killer is in the house, right? You wouldn't know it from their behavior, where not even Erin reacts accordingly to the fear that a killer has gotten in.
Tonally it's all over the place. There's nothing wrong with mixing humor and horror, but the shifts are done randomly at the whims of the director. The result is that some scenes come off as camp when playing them straight was likely the intent. The two elements I spent the most time on were the biggest issues for me, but these minor elements still add up.
Maybe this is just one of those films that really thrives at a midnight festival crowd. It's not totally without merit, but it's not one I think I'm going to feel compelled to revisit again.