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“It’s been a long time since we’ve all been together,” Crispian (AJ Bowen) warns his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) on the car ride over to his parents’ 35th anniversary. “So it should be…interesting.”
Still, he couldn’t possibly know just how interesting things will get in “You’re Next,” director Adam Wingard’s third collaboration with writer Simon Barrett following last year’s low-budget, high intrigue “A Horrible Way to Die” and to say their latest takes it to another level would be an understatement. Whether it’s considered an action movie where the deaths are more gruesome or a horror exercise where every casualty means something before they meet their fate, “You’re Next” is consistently and relentlessly rewarding in ways that films of any stripe rarely are.
As terrifying premises go, a family reunion isn’t a bad place to start, though that isn’t where Wingard and Barnett choose to open their film. Instead, we witness the murders of a young woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her lover (Larry Fessenden) in the film’s first frames set to the Dwight Twilley Band’s “Looking for the Magic,” which will forever rebrand that song in the same way Ti West did for The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” in “House of the Devil.” It isn’t such a coincidence then that West plays one of the significant others of the Davison clan who shows up at the family’s palatial estate in the woods, where naturally sibling rivalries are stoked and career and life choices are compared.
Yet the slings and arrows launched between the underachieving Crispian, his insufferable brother Drake (Joe Swanberg, in a role that will please the actor/director’s fans and detractors), and their reserved brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and favored sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz) over the anniversary dinner table are quickly interrupted by more lethal ones that shatter the windows of the Davisons’ home in a maelstrom that takes out a few of their number immediately. With the perpetrators unseen by the family, the surviving members set about the best way to protect themselves and scatter accordingly, though the heretofore quiet Erin emerges as the most resourceful of the bunch, able to find creative ways to use a meat tenderizer and set up a makeshift guillotine at the front door out of a pickaxe and some tripwire.
Such invention is what powers “You’re Next” through a fairly traditional plot pitting the family against what’s eventually discovered to be three assailants in creepy beige animal masks (statuesque faces of a lamb, a tiger and a fox). But Wingard and Barrett don’t have to strain to make the audience share in Davisons’ fear of being attacked around every corner and the adrenaline rush that comes when they elude death, which isn’t to say anyone is held sacred by the film as a series of shocking murders commences — even after being deceased, their corpses could still be fodder for the black humor as sharp as the knives often brandished onscreen that makes it all so fun.
The fun is also in no small part due to the instantly endearing mix of actors onhand, which ranges from cherished genre presences like “The Re-Animator”’s Barbara Crampton as the family’s matriarch to indie staples such as Swanberg and Seimetz. However, as perhaps the least known quantity on American shores, Vinson is the real breakout, following her physically demanding lead performance in “Step Up 3D” with a role that’s far more multidimensional as a character while taking advantage of her inherent agility. If handled properly by Lionsgate, who picked up the film during the Toronto Film Festival, Vinson’s cunning turn as Erin could potentially become iconic as one of the strongest female action heroes in a generation, which is fitting since gems as smart and satisfying as “You’re Next” come around just as rarely.