M. Keith Booker
You’re Next has all the elements of a certain kind of home-invasion slasher film, though it is a slickly-produced, well-made film that stands apart from most of the subgenre in that sense. Its wry sense of humor is also more effective than the attempts at humor found in most slashers, extending (among other things) to some self-referential winks at its own use of well-worn formulas, which has the effect of refreshing those formulas, at least to an extent. But what really sets You’re Next apart from run-of-the-mill slasher fare is its Final Girl, an MA student in literature named Erin (played by Sharni Vinson). Not only does the highly capable Erin turn out to be more than a match for a whole gang of masked slashers, but the male characters of the film come off as decidedly weaker and less capable than is Erin. Further, Erin (though certainly not girly) is extremely attractive (and sexually active, though not within the film itself) and there is no hint of masculinization in the strength and courage that she displays.
You’re Next begins with a prologue that at first makes the film seem very much like a conventional slasher (though perhaps with higher production values, despite a low budget). After all, the common beginning for slashers in general is just this sort of prologue—in which a preliminary murder (or two) sets us up for the main murders to come. Further, the couple murdered in this sequence are first shown engaging in sexual intercourse, then immediately murdered in graphic fashion, as if to announce that the filmmakers know very well this is what is supposed to happen in slasher films—and also that they know that audiences know this is supposed to happen. Other elements announce that this slasher film is a bit different, though, including the fact that the not-very-attractive man engaged in the sex is older than the usual slasher victim; he’s also apparently not that great at sex, because the woman (who is younger and more attractive) seems quite bored with the whole thing, perfectly content to have him finish quickly, then roll off and head straight for the shower. Showers, of course, have been ominous indicators in slasher films ever since Psycho, and this one is no exception. Twigs snap outside as a Halloween-style point-of-view shot establishes that someone is looking through the sliding glass door into the house as the woman prepares to put on some music. She senses something, then locks the door as ominous music plays in the background. Then she proceeds to put on her own music into the CD player: “Looking for the Magic,” by the Dwight Twilley band. It’s a snappy, upbeat power pop tune, originally released on the album Twilley Don’t Mind in 1977, so the song also dates back to the beginnings of the slasher subgenre. She’s apparently a fan, because she puts the disc on repeat. The song is an appropriately ironic expression of the woman’s recent disappointment in the sexual encounter, the lead line—“All my life I’ve been looking for the magic”—only to serving to point out that she apparently hasn’t found it with the guy in the shower.
The woman makes a screwdriver, then sits down to listen to the music and sip her drink. Seen from behind, she turns slowly as a light shines outside the window behind her. A cut to the guy coming out of the shower shows him discovering her drink and taking a sip before seeing the words “You’re Next” written in red (presumably blood) on the outside of the bedroom window. Then he sees the woman lying dead and bleeding on the floor—and is immediately hacked to death himself with a machete wielded by an assailant wearing a white lamb mask, seen now for the first time. The man’s blood splatters onto the inside of the window obscuring the “You’re Next,” as the screen goes black for a few seconds, then is filled by a long shot of a rural landscape. An SUV drives into the frame from the left; we know enough about slasher films to know that whoever is in that SUV is probably headed for trouble.
This prologue sets up the main part of the film perfectly, because it bears the same relationship to the usual slasher prologue that the main film bears to the usual slasher film. It’s enough like a typical prologue to make clear that we are about to see a slasher film, but enough different (in the configuration of the couple, in the music, in the slick cinematography) to suggest that this slasher film will not be typical at all. Then a cut to the inside of the SUV shows it occupied by an aging couple who don’t seem to be typical slasher victims. They pass by the house in which the murders of the prologue occurred; it’s apparently a vacation home, because the man is surprised to see a car outside. “Eric Harson is home,” he observes, after which his wife explains to him that Harson has just left his wife for some “college student” and might be living there fulltime now, leaving us to wonder whether Mrs. Harson might have hired someone to kill Harson and his girlfriend.
Now we know who the victims in the prologue were, but most viewers probably haven’t recognized that the actor playing Harson was Larry Fessenden, who has many acting credits, but is perhaps best known for his work behind the camera as a writer and director, especially of horror films. So his casting is a bit of a self-referential nod to the horror genre, as is the casting of the actress who plays the woman in the SUV, who is none other than 1980s scream queen Barbara Crampton, known for her performances in such films as Body Double (1984), Re-Animator (1985), Chopping Mall (1986), and From Beyond (1986). Such casting decisions suggest that this film is very conscious of the tradition with which it is entering into dialogue, and it will in fact acknowledge that tradition in numerous ways throughout the film.
The couple in the SUV, who turn out to be Paul and Aubrey Davison (Rob Moran and Crampton), arrive at their own newly-acquired country mansion (in broad daylight) and start to unload their vehicle. The house is stately, but old and a bit creaky. Paul has bought it in order to renovate it during his retirement, suggesting that he has considerable wealth if he can afford such an expensive retirement hobby. They are surprised to find the door unlocked, but decide it’s no big deal, given that workmen have been on the premises, working on the renovation. Then a cut to another vehicle driving into the country (now at night) introduces us to another couple of potential victims: Erin and her boyfriend Crispian Davison (A. J. Bowen), the son of Paul and Aubrey. We will eventually learn that he is a literature professor and that they got together while she was his graduate assistant, though she has now moved to a new supervisor due to their relationship. She’s young and pretty; he’s a bit older and bit chubby, so that—at least to an extent—they mirror the couple killed in the prologue, which seems ominous (and shows the level of subtle detail that distinguishes this film from the typical slasher, though many reviewers seemed to have missed this aspect of the film entirely).
It turns out that the whole Davison family (with significant others) is gathering at the country house for a sort of family reunion and to celebrate the parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Also present are Crispian’s older brother Drake (Joe Swanberg), Drake’s wife Kelly (Sarah Myers), younger brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci), his girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn), younger sister Aimee (Amy Seimetz), and her boyfriend Tariq (Ti West). It’s an interesting ensemble cast, many members of which had worked together before and several of whom had directorial experience. West, for example, has directed several horror movies, while Swanberg is an important director in the mumblecore movement. Meanwhile, Bowen, Swanberg, and Seimetz had all performed together a year earlier in Wingard’s interesting serial-killer drama A Horrible Way to Die, written by Simon Barrett.
The prologue suggests that we are probably about to see a slasher film of some sort, but the situation could go lots of ways. It is established early on, for example, that Paul is a recently-retired former employee of a large defense contractor, something with which the liberal-minded Erin is a bit uncomfortable. So we could be in for a significant amount of culture clash and social commentary, in the manner of Look Who’s Coming to Dinner. On the other hand, from the looks of the house, we might be in for an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery (and screenwriter Barrett has reported being influenced by Christie in writing the script). But the film could have haunted-house elements, given the age, size, and remoteness of the house.
We get an early tease in a cut back to the house, when Aubrey thinks she hears someone upstairs in the supposedly empty house, which she she and Paul have been cleaning to get things ready for the reunion. Paul creeps upstairs to check it out, while the frightened Aubrey goes outside the house to wait. We get an early jump scare as someone suddenly appears behind Paul in an upstairs room. It’s just Crispian, though. He and Erin have just arrived and were met outside the house by Aubrey. So no problem. Except that an ominous shot of an upstairs closet door shows it slowly (and creekily) opening from the inside, though that’s all we see. The film does a good job of building tension and does it economically. After all this, we are only eleven minutes into the film.
That night, Aubrey goes into the kitchen. Tense music and a point of view shot from outside the window suggest that someone is watching her—which is confirmed when we see the faint reflection of a white mask reflected in the window. The mask is similar to the one worn by the killer in the prologue, though it looks more catlike, possibly a tiger, suggesting that there are at least two attackers. Nothing happens, though. Then the next morning, Aubrey realizes she is out of milk and asks Erin to go to Harson’s house to see if she can borrow some. We get another tease as she arrives at the house and rings the bell, with “Looking for the Magic” still loudly playing inside. Nothing happens there, either, though. She doesn’t discover the bodies and simply returns to the Davison house when no one answers the doorbell.
As the family and guests gather for dinner, we are briefly introduced to all of the major characters. Unlike their conventionally successful father, the Davison children seem to be having their struggles. (They might, in fact, have walked straight out of a mumblecore film into this one.) Even Crispian, the professor, hasn’t published recently and has just lost out on an important fellowship. The siblings also don’t get along very well, especially Crispian and Drake, who get into a shouting match over dinner (after a sequence in which Crispian and Erin exchange private and affectionate whispers, glances, and smiles, suggesting that their relationship is in fine shape. The level of family dysfunction doesn’t seem particularly extreme, but it is significant, and it will be important as the film unfolds.
Then the action begins in earnest, as Tariq (a “filmmaker” who has made only one film, a documentary shown at an “underground film festival”) thinks he sees or hears something outside and gets up to check it out, then is immediately cut down by a bolt from a crossbow, shot through the window and into the middle of his forehead. It doesn’t particularly seem so at the time, but, in retrospect, there is probably a private joke involved in the fact that Wingard and Barrett chose to kill off the pretentious documentary filmmaker (who would probably think himself superior to makers of lowly slasher films) first. After this, all hell breaks loose as the house is assaulted by a gang of masked assailants, who seem determined to kill everyone inside. Meanwhile, cell phone reception in the area seems to have been jammed, suggesting a well-planned attack, though Erin shows her resourcefulness early on by sending a text to 911, having heard that such texts can get through jamming in some cases.
In addition to Tariq, several of the occupants of the house are killed in particularly graphic (and inventive) ways. Aimee, for example, tries to run to the cars to go for help but has her throat sliced open by razor wire strung across the front door. While she lies in bed sobbing over the death of her daughter, Aubrey is brutally killed when an assailant in a white fox mask climbs out from beneath the bed and slashes her with a machete, the weapon left obscenely protruding from her head. “You’re Next” is written in blood on the wall beside her bed, clearly in the same handwriting we saw in the prologue. With Fox Mask, we have now seen what appear to be three assailants. There are, in fact, three: Fox Mask, Lamb Mask, and Tiger Mask.
Soon afterward, Kelly spies Fox Mask, who has again hidden under the bed. She freaks out and runs out of the house, through the woods, and to Harson home. Lamb Mask follows her there, throws her through the glass door and then kills her with an axe to the face—just after she sees Harson’s body, now arranged sitting grotesquely on the couch. At this point (just about halfway through the film), Drake has been badly wounded and lies unconscious; Paul is catatonic and essentially useless. Only Erin, Crispian, Felix, and Zee remain to confront the attackers—except that we eventually learn that Crispian, Felix, and Zee are actually in league with the masked assailants, which means that Erin is the only intended victim left to fight off six attackers.
The tide begins to turn when Tiger Mask attacks Erin with an axe, only to have her fight back, pounding his head into mush with a meat tenderizing hammer. It’s a surprisingly violent, even shocking show of force on Erin’s part; for the first time we begin to suspect what she might be capable of. A few minutes later we learn what Felix and Zee are capable of as well: after Fox Mask viciously cuts Paul’s throat, the two of them chat with him in a familiar manner, making it clear that they are in this together. Erin takes the lead (not realizing that she is surrounded by enemies) and starts to boobytrap the house, assuming the attackers have not finished with them. (Some reviewers—unfairly, I think—compared this aspect of You’re Next to Home Alone, though Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street would probably be a more relevant precedent.) In the midst of it all, Erin tells Zee that she grew up in a survivalist compound in the Australian Outback, where she learned her survival skills.
These skills come in handy as the battle rages on. Felix finishes off Drake, but the rest is all Erin. She is injured when she leaps through a window to escape an attack by Fox Mask, but she is still capable enough to finish off the two remaining masked attackers, as well as Felix and Zee (when they attack her, revealing themselves). She stabs Lamb Mask in the eye with a knife, and hacks Fox Mask to death (in particularly brutal fashion) with his own machete. Probably the most memorable killings occur in the kitchen, as she grinds off the top of Felix’s head with a blender, then pulls out the knife with which Felix has stabbed her in the back and implants it in the top of Zee’s head. No doubt there is a bit of gender commentary (“a woman’s place is in the kitchen”) here—as there is in the fact that Erin wields kitchen utensils so effectively as weapons throughout the film.
The blender killing is an odd moment of macabre comedy—something that might have been at home in The Evil Dead, but that is also reminiscent of the kitchen killings of Gremlins with a blender and a microwave in the Gremlins films. The comedy of the scene is then topped off Crispian returns after being absent for some time, supposedly seeking help, but actually just unable to cope with all the bloodshed, because he’s a “pacifist.” Unfortunately, for Crispian, the jammer has now been turned off, which allows him to call Felix’s phone to check on the situation. Erin, though, answers the phone and realizes that Crispian, too, is in on the conspiracy. She looks quite formidable when she confronts him as he returns. When he asks her about Felix, she simply responds, “I stuck a blender in his head and killed him.” “Okay,” says Crispian. Then his attempts to smooth-talk his way out of the situation are so bizarrely lame and inappropriate that it is also almost comic when she stabs him in the neck with a kitchen knife, then plants the same knife in his left eye, killing him as well.
There is also quite a lot of genre commentary in the film. For one thing, Erin’s capabilities—and her overall status in the film as a sort of feminist avenger—combine gender commentary with genre commentary to make a statement about the way in which women have typically been employed in the slasher film as relatively passive victims. In addition, the film asks those of us who are attracted to slasher films in the first place to perform a serious self-examination about why that would be. After all, for such viewers, the spectacle of Erin violently smashing and stabbing and hacking and blending her way through six people who are trying to kill her—blood flying liberally—is meant to be enjoyable, even when it doesn’t have a comic edge. But why would anyone enjoy such a spectacle of violence?
One could, of course, argue that the killings executed by Erin are entertaining because all of the people she kills are engaged in trying to kill her, so that she is only acting in self-defense, only dispensing rough justice. The killing of Crispian seems particularly well-motivated, and most viewers are doubtless pleased by the brutal way it is carried out. Erin thus serves as a stand-in for all of us who might sometimes fantasize about avenging ourselves (perhaps less violently) on any tormenters who have wronged us in various ways. In this sense, the film’s title takes on an ironic edge, the “you” who is “next” becoming a fantasy stand-in for those on whom we would like to take revenge. Meanwhile, one could argue that the moments of comedy in the film simply serve to make these fantasy substitutions more effective by lightening the mood a bit, reminding us that this is all a constructed bit of theater. No one, after all, was really harmed in the making of this film.
On the other hand, the ending of You’re Next adds an extra wrinkle to this dimension of the film. The film closes as police arrive on the scene, answering Erin’s earlier 911 text. A policeman looks through the window just in time to see Erin stabbing Crispian in the eye. Mistaking the situation, he shoots her in the shoulder, then opens the front door. The wounded Erin tries to warn him, but it’s too late: one of the booby traps is triggered by the opening of the door, sending an axe swinging toward his face and filling the screen with a splatter of blood in which the film’s title is etched, as “Looking for the Magic” once again begins to play.
This ending adds an exclamation mark to all the earlier moments of violence, in which scenes like the blender-to-the-head scenework pretty much the cathartic way gross-out humor always works, releasing tensions and fears and tantalizing us by making us wonder what the filmmakers will come up with next and just how far they will dare to go. Meanwhile, this aspect of the film goes beyond the moments of spectacular violence. For example, at one point late in the film, Zee tries to get Felix to have sex with her on the bed next to his dead mother, an idea that she clearly finds titillating. When he resists, obviously appalled, she exclaims with exasperation, “You never want to do anything interesting!” Given that Felix is currently engaged in murdering most of his family in order the inherit their fortune, this declaration of how boring he is seems hilariously inappropriate, while the fact that Zee genuinely relishes the idea of having sex on the bed next to bloody corpse of Felix’s murdered mother is a gross-out moment that again cuts to the core of the attractions of slasher films as a subgenre, dramatizing the association between sex and violence that has long been so central to the subgenre, thus looping back to the playful recreation of the classic slasher scenario in the film’s prologue, in which sexual activity is inevitably followed by violent murder.
Among other things, this moment suggests that the formulaic nature of slasher films is, in many cases, an attraction rather than a liability. By the time of You’re Next, slasher fans are so familiar with the conventions of the genre that they can enjoy seeing them violated—but they can also enjoy seeing them ironically reproduced. One of the things that makes slasher films watchable at all is that they are so formulaic, which gives the killings within them an artificial, staged quality. We can thus anticipate with a certain (admittedly perverse) pleasure the series of killings we are about to see, wondering (among other things) what innovative methods the filmmakers might be able to come up with to enact these killings. In this sense, You’re Next is a particularly successful slasher film, in the way that Erin’s killings, in particular, are so inventive, each differing from the other, including the blender scene.
Finally, it should be noted that You’re Next is a film that contains a great deal of social commentary so subtle that it might not even be noticed by most viewers. Much of this commentary is embedded in the film’s figuration of gender and in the way it opposes this figuration to the typical treatment of gender in the slasher tradition. But the film also comments on matters such as class. For one thing, that the wealthy Davison family seems to have produced such problematic children can be taken as a suggestion that the spoiled children of such families have a tendency to grow up directionless, both professionally and morally. Similarly, their wealthy neighbor, Harson, seems to have questionable morals as well. Meanwhile, though not much is made of it in the film, it might nevertheless be significant that the film makes a point of the fact that Davison’s wealth was acquired through his work for a large defense contractor, while also suggesting that this, in itself, might be problematic. In particular, it is pointed out that he worked for the fictional KPG Corporation, though Crispian explains to Erin (hoping this makes it okay) that he worked only in marketing. Of course, this fact essentially makes him an arms dealer (not exactly a profession with a positive reputation).
You’re Next gives us no information about KPG (other than that it is a defense contractor), but this corporation is apparently quite evil: it also figures prominently in The Guest (2014, also written by Barrett and directed by Wingard), where it is involved in secret medical experiments that turn a former soldier into an unstoppable (and uncontrollable, even by himself) killing machine. Meanwhile, the masked assassins of You’re Next are also former soldiers, from which one might infer (when again combining this film with The Guest)that Barrett and Wingard want to suggest that former soldiers might be problematic members of civilian society with a tendency toward violence. Statistics tend to support this point, but that does not mean that these films have a lack of sympathy for soldiers or former soldiers. Indeed, when one character in The Guest suggests that former soldiers in general might be dangerous, she expresses this thought in a way that makes her look ridiculous and unsympathetic. Instead, Barrett and Wingard, in these two films, portray former soldiers as victims of a system that has made them dangerous, then released them without proper preparation for civilian life; the films thus actually show a great deal of sympathy for the former soldiers, but little sympathy for the system that produced them. From this point of view, Paul Davison’s work for a defense contractor becomes even more significant because he has garnered his wealth from the very system that has driven these former soldiers to murder several people in order to gain even a fraction of the wealth that Davison had made from a business that has contributed to the deaths of thousands, if not millions. What goes around comes around.
By the same logic, the extremely negative depiction of Crispian Davison in You’re Next should probably not be taken as a suggestion that literature professors are spineless, amoral losers. It could, however, be taken as a critique of an academic system that typically pays such professors poorly, while placing tremendous competitive pressures on them to produce publications that can help their universities to look good. This critique of academia also extends to the fact that Erin apparently has significant student loan debt, which is one of the growing economic problems financially crippling a substantial portion of an entire generation of young, educated Americans. Her debt is so significant, in fact, that Crispian genuinely believes she might forgive him if he offers her enough money to wipe it out. He is, of course, wrong, but the fact that he could even think of such a thing suggests that he knows many young people are driven almost to desperation by these debts.
All in all, You’re Next is about as bloody as American slasher films get, yet it still maintains enough postmodern self-conscious hipness to achieve a playful tone, far different from the darkness of, say, the New French Extremity films. It also stands out because its slashers are motivated by greed, rather than psychopathology or some undefined urge to kill, which places it much closer to realism than, say, Halloween. Crispian Davison is, in many ways, a far more sinister figure than Michael Myers, because it seems much more likely that one might encounter him in reality. But You’re Next stands out mostly for its remarkable Final Girl, who seems almost designed as a counter to Clover’s negative view of the notion of Final Girls as feminist heroines. She is smart, strong, capable, and courageous, but not masculinized. She is, in fact, quite feminine—as is emphasized at one point when Felix criticizes the masked assassins because they “keep getting beaten up by a girl.” She is very attractive, but not treated as an object of the Male Gaze. She is not sexualized in any way, in fact. She is fully clad throughout the film, and the one scene we see of her in bed with Crispian is one of chaste cuddling with no hint of the salacious. It might have been good if she had shown more knowledge of literature (or even used that knowledge in defending herself), but she seems the almost ideal Final Girl. One could argue, though, that the heroin of Revenge, a film (discussed in detail in the next section) that takes a very different strategy in the presentation of its Final Girl, even goes her one better.
 This song is actually the second track on the album. However, in the film, it plays first. In fact, it seems to be the only song that repeats, though the CD player is clearly set to repeat the entire disc, suggesting that this might be a homemade disc containing only one song.
 “Mumblecore” is a recent subgenre of low-budget independent film, influenced by the French New Wave, marked by an emphasis on naturalistic acting and dialogue (often improvised) and relationships, rather than plot. Characters are usually young (in their twenties or thirties) and still trying to find a direction in life. There is a horror film version of mumblecore that has been dubbed “mumblegore,” in which Barrett is a leading writer.
 There are, for example, ten occupants of the house, who keep getting killed off one-by-one, as in Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians).
 These masks were, in fact, made from commercially-available Halloween masks, primarily by painting them white—very much in the way Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween was made from a William Shatner mask.
 This trap, incidentally, is quite similar to the one in A Nightmare on Elm Street that Nancy uses to send a sledge hammer swinging toward Freddy Krueger, who turns out, however, to be much tougher than the poor cop in You’re Next.
 One note, for example, that the three masked assailants are actually presented more positively in the film than are the spoiled and selfish brothers who hired them or the perverse girlfriend who supported that decision.
 One might compare here the excellent British horror film Kill List (released, like You’re Next, in 2011), which features two former British soldiers who have been forced to become contract killers in order to make ends meet after coming home from the military, thus employing the only skills they were given there.