Film Review: You're Next

No-holds-barred homage to ’70s and ’80s horror flicks works on its own terms as a brutal, suspenseful, well-paced thriller about a family fighting murderous—and mysterious—home invaders.

Exploitation aficionados who bemoan the Disneyfication of Times Square and the loss of the amazing, decrepit grand dames of grindhouse that lined West 42nd Street will feel a frisson of memory as strong as anything prompted by a Proust madeleine while watching You're Next. Reuniting A Horrible Way to Die writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, this low-budget home-invasion movie—shot on video and looking it—works both on its own terms and as a throwback to such slapped-together shockers as Fight for Your Life (1977) and Last House on Dead End Street (made in 1973 and released in 1977).

Those were also home-invasion movies, in which murderous miscreants lay siege to an ordinary family's home, generally forcing the family to rise up and fight back. From such classics as the play and the subsequent William Wyler film The Desperate Hours (1955) to recent entries like The Strangers (2008) and The Purge (2013), this horror subgenre keys in, so to speak, on the primal outrage of our safest, most secure space being violated. It's a potent scenario, whether used for psychological explorations of manhood, as in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), or simply as a taut exercise in form and formula, like You're Next.

Pulling us in with a widescreen desolation like something out of Terrence Malick—and that's the only way this even remotely resembles Terrence Malick—the film finds retired defense contractor Paul (Rob Moran) and his delicately patrician wife, Aubrey (’80s scream queen Barbara Crampton, grown more beautiful with the years), about to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. Their three grown sons and their daughter are arriving with significant others at the folks' fixer-upper weekend mansion, a retirement project for Dad. Drake (actor and mumblecore director Joe Swanberg) is an overbearing yuppie who delights in tormenting Crispian (A.J. Bowen), a college professor whose lack of advancement is a sore point; Felix (Nicholas Tucci) has brought his oh-so-Euro girlfriend, Zee (Wendy Glenn); and Aimee is with boyfriend Tariq (horror-film director Ti West), who's overly proud of his one completed film—an "underground documentary," much to Drake's jeers.

That not one of the siblings looks remotely related to the others is briefly bothersome, but the film's no-nonsense pacing quickly makes that moot. Shortly after the family sits down to dinner, three men in animal masks—that of a tiger, a fox and, most creepily, a lamb—begin bombarding the house with crossbow-fired arrows. Soon they're infiltrating with axes and tormenting the clan with vicious, up-close-and-personal violence: They'll wait until their victims are looking at them before they strike a killing blow, and in the case of Drake's wife Kelly (Margaret Laney, credited as Sarah Myers), they play a sadistic cat-and-mouse game—needlessly punching her in the face and throwing her into glass furniture. Make no mistake, this is as nasty as anything that unspooled at the Liberty, the Empire or the Selwyn in the good ol' bad ol' days.

Horror fans will recognize those animal masks from the similarly visaged attackers in 1985's Fortress, starring Rachel Ward as an Outback schoolteacher who turns badass to protect her kids. As if in homage, another Aussie actress, Sharni Vinson, plays Crispian's Australian girlfriend, Erin, who displays unexpected skills in confronting, if not entirely repelling, the mysterious killers. Equally unexpected plot twists subvert the formula—mom Aubrey sensibly flees the house when she suspects an intruder is inside; we've waited years to see people in horror films do that! And the filmmakers play fair with logic without sacrificing suspense. The one glaring lapse is in the opening, where the intruders write "You're Next" in blood on an unfortunate neighbor's glass door, which one might think would, y'know, arouse suspicion. Otherwise, doing nothing halfway, this fully satisfying shock-fest is as take-no-prisoners as the attackers themselves.

Horror filmmaker-actor Larry Fessenden has a cameo as said unfortunate neighbor.