While almost no movie could live up to the deafening hype that "You're Next" got from various quarters after screening at South by Southwest a few months ago, this exquisitely tense thriller works at various levels — it's a love letter to horror movies of yore, but it absolutely delivers the goods as a nerve-wracking and witty fright flick.
Structured as a classic home-invasion movie, down to the animal-masked intruders who never speak to or around their victims, "You're Next" has any number of surprises up its stylish sleeves, keeping viewers guessing all the way until the end while providing a constant stream of shocks.
After the pre-credits murder of a random couple (the male half of which is played by underground horror director Larry Fessenden), the movie introduces us to Aubrey (cult-movie icon Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Rob Moran), who are driving out to their middle-of-nowhere country home for a celebration of their anniversary.
They're soon joined by their four children and their partners: college professor Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his much-younger former-T.A. girlfriend Erin (Shami Vinson); brash alpha male Drake (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Sarah Myers); daddy's girl Aimee (Amy Seimetz) and her beau Tariq (Ti West), a documentary filmmaker; and ne'er-do-well Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his Goth-y galpal Zee (Wendy Glenn).
Some minor bits of exposition are strewn about casually — Paul made a substantial fortune working for a controversial arms manufacturer, Crispian and Drake have been competitive all their lives — but only enough to keep us guessing when all the pointy and blunt objects come out and the cast members start getting eliminated.
To reveal the whys and wherefores of what exactly happens in this house in the woods would be to spoil the fun of "You're Next"; suffice it to say that genre fans will find touchstones in the film's score, the editing and even the costumes, while at the same time enjoying the surprises that writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard have in store.
It's no coincidence that the cast features so many indie stalwarts: in addition to Fessenden and "Re-Animator" star Crampton, there's prolific "mumblecore" filmmaker Swanberg (although he's outgrown that epithet with "Drinking Buddies"), "House of the Devil" director West and "Upstream Color" co-star Seimetz. Barrett and Wingard, who previously collaborated on 2010's "A Horrible Way to Die," are very much part of this up-and-coming generation of indie directors, who revel in genre conventions while at the same time taking an understated and realistically human approach to the material.
Part of what makes "You're Next" so effective is its balance of outrageous carnage with the thoroughly believable responses of its characters. No one sits around analyzing the action "Scream"-style, but these people are at least smart enough to debate whether or not it's such a hot idea to go into the basement. And as slasher-movie Last Persons Standing go, this movie delivers a doozy.
This isn't a redefining of the horror movie in the way that "The Blair Witch Project" was, or even as pure a distillation of classic scares as "The Conjuring," but "You're Next" represents a clever, genuine and crisply chilling take on terror that should appeal to cinephiles and Saturday night popcorn-throwers alike.
If nothing else, it's sure to be discussed wherever tenderizing mallets are sold.