Once upon a time, a little movie called Scream asked What if the victims in the slasher knew the formula of the movie they were in? It started a revolution, a renaissance, one that finally made room for a Leslie Vernon to look at things from the slasher’s point-of-view, one that left room for Tucker & Dale to see what happens if the bad guys were the victims this time around. One that opened the door for Cabin in the Woods, which posed the question What if all these cliché conventions are part of something real, something vital for us all?
Horror reshapes itself with questions, I’m saying. It’s always turning back on itself, trying to poke holes in the givens, see what its own gory insides might look like. Which brings us to You’re Next.
A bit ago, I was saying The Conjuring was far and away the best wide-release horror of the year so far. And I feel like I was right, for then. This is a month later, though. And, while I don’t want to dethrone The Conjuring — still excellent, a clean span above the rest — man, You’re Next. Slashers are what I live for. Especially ones that are smart, that cut the genre off at the knees only to graft its stumps to stilts.
The question You’re Next is doing that with is something a lot like: What if Nancy from Nightmare on Elm Street had been her third-act self from the opening frames on?
It changes everything. So much for the better. Sure, the final girl’s arc has always been from book-hugging mousiness to full-blown Ripley status, allowing some fun transformation and rebirth for us to experience — all births involve blood, yes? — but You’re Next makes me realize that what’s really at issue for final girls is ownership. Of their true, tamped-down-again-and-again natures. Of their secret selves. Of their inner Red Sonjas, their just-under-the-skin Michonnes that this slasher is finally, wonderfully, forcing them to let loose.
Where the pleasure lies in that for us, it’s that it allows us to ride that same arc: knowing full well there’s a beast waiting in the jungle for us, we always keep our inner Red Sonjas in check, like we’re just biding our time, waiting this thing out. The final girl’s transformation into her true self, then, it confirms our suspicions certainties about the true nature of this movie we know we’re in, and our role right at the center of it. It’s like — remember up-front in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where he says that every guy, until he’s about twenty-five, is certain that, given the right wrong circumstances, he could get a sword and go Bronson on whoever’s so obviously asking for exactly that? That’s the dynamic we so cherish in the slasher: this girl who’s kept it between the lines for eighteen or twenty years, this girl who’s all of us, circumstances finally make her step over, become River in a tight room. And look out. However, to allow that kind of reckless abandon, that guiltless slaughter, what you have to do first, it’s what Wes Craven did back in Last House on the Left: you dehumanize the killers, such that the final girl isn’t fighting people, but ‘evil.’ And when it’s evil getting its grave spit on, human rights and common decency and good taste all go out the window. You’re Next, as you’ve seen in the trailers, dehumanizes its slashers in the cleanest way possible: it gives them animal masks to inhabit. Which of course is traditional — Leatherface, Ghostface, Hockeyface, Kirkface — but, with other slashers, the masks are usually somewhat human, yes? I mean, we at least tend to get baghead eyeholes in the places we expect, from The Town that Dreaded Sundown all the way to Triangle. Animals, though. Wasn’t the horse-face or whatever from Saw actually the scariest part? And did some of you see the pig-head in Madison County? Animal masks can work. In You’re Next, they work very well, well enough that, once we start seeing behind them, it makes us uncomfortable (the good kind of uncomfortable).
What also works with You’re Next is that we’ve all seen Ils and The Strangers and Funny Games, of course; home-invasion is its own disturbing category. At the same time, though, we know director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have seen and studied those films too, and we also suspect that they each care too much for the genre to simply trace over the same lines that are already there. What this means is that they’re going to try to do something different, in a category of horror that’s always been more of a zombie dynamic, really: nail boards over the windows, let’s try to survive this night. Granted, most of these end with nobody but the killers walking away — insert social commentary here — but who lives and who dies is never really what matters. What matters is if the characters are able to develop before the killers walk away at dawn — if they’re able to die having changed, having, to go Red Dragon for a word, ‘become.’
In You’re Next: yes, our final girl, aside from finally not having to hide her true self, she processes through betrayal and comes out the other side as Ben from Night of the Living Dead. But there’s a lot of Kill Theory and Deadfall and Mon Ami to get to that point. And a lot of nods to a lot of movies, which I won’t even try to say out loud, here.
I will say out loud, though, that Adam Wingard’s camera work is the flat-out most ‘horror’ camera job I’ve seen since Wes Craven. Seriously. The angles, the distances, the peek-throughs, the lingerings, the composition — Barrett’s script, I’m sure, was tense. But Wingard jacks that up to eleven. And, when you have that kind of touch, that kind of eye, that granular kind of control, it’s so easy to let that be the focus instead of the method of delivery, but Wingard always chooses the substance, never just the style. It gives the story depth, not just surface. And the deep parts are where we like to swim, yes?
But don’t let me set You’re Next up as holier-than-thou or anything. I mean, there’s axes to faces, there’s sledgehammers swung like golf clubs, there’s what’s shaping up to be the most awkward sex scene since Dead Snow. There’s even a blender, used just as creatively as Stitches might have used it. And, the exposition. Man, the exposition. It’s handled as nicely as I’ve seen since . . . I don’t know. Since Tobias Wolff, I’m thinking. Early on, when you’re first meeting everybody, and two of the couples are saying hey just inside the house: inside like twenty-five seconds, you know each of them thoroughly, and in the most natural-seeming way. We should all take note.
And: Barbara Crampton. Hopefully You’re Next helps her become as vital (again) to horror as Linnea Quigley and Dee Wallace, as Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver were in days gone by. She absolutely steals whatever scene she’s in, just by being there, by being her. It’s too, too cool, having her be a part of things, and doing so much more than just a cameo.
And, I read somewhere that a sequel’s possibly possible, yes? Excellent. Hopefully it’ll be “Who’s Next,” followed by a third installment, “I’m Next.” Or maybe the sequel’s a prequel, “You’re First,” then the third can be “You’re Last.” Maybe even/just “You’re Next Too.” Either way, I’d be thrilled to write the novels they all should have been based on, had the films not come out first.
Before I step away, too, I should note that I was at the Friday morning showing on opening day. After, yes, going to the wrong theater two weeks before, early-screening ticket in hand. But so it goes. This showing, though, it was me and about ten couples, all with more silver in their hair than me (for now). It made me step back out, be sure I was in the right movie. And then be sad that all the college kids newly back in town weren’t flocking to horror as they should be. However. In the goriest parts? In that way-awkward near-sex scene? In the parts Herschell Gordon Lewis would have gotten giddy about? During the cruelest, most excessive, dragged-out kills? This audience I was sitting with was absolutely cracking up. Loud enough that I was afraid I was going to miss something.
But of course I was laughing too. And peeking between my fingers. And, instead of mourning the absence of an audience that’s supposed to be the target demographic of a film like this, I started regretting the prejudices I’d come to the movie with, about who horror’s for: it’s for all of us, always.
Thank you, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. I haven’t seen anything this original in a good while. Had my faith in the slasher ever faltered, this would have righted it. My only hope is that the rest of the world sees this, and then comes back to see it again. It’s time for another renaissance in slasherland. Cabin opened that door. It’s our job as an audience now to jam our fingers in, keep it open. Never mind the blood. The blood’s just part of it.
- Best You’re Next review I’ve seen so far? Adam Cesare‘s