Friday, August 23, 2013

House Hunters: YOU'RE NEXT

You’re Next is an “…and then all but one dies” horror movie. In this case a couple celebrates their 35th wedding anniversary by inviting their grown children and their significant others to spend the weekend…and then all but one dies. The deaths involve stabbings mainly, although a few other forms of bodily harm are deployed. The killers are the creeps in animal masks – pure white rubber things – who are otherwise completely dressed in black and lurking around outside this dark evening. They interrupt the festivities during dinner, conveniently interrupting a burgeoning tiff between two of the brothers, by shooting arrows from a crossbow into the dining room. What an anniversary present, huh? The movie proceeds in much the way you’d expect, with dark corridors and ominous noises and threatening shapes that move into the back of the frame out of focus before mysteriously disappearing before causing harm. The better to scare us later, I guess.

The hows and whys of the whole ordeal come to light by the film’s end, however unconvincingly and forced. By then I had pretty much stopped caring, but almost appreciated the movie’s dedication to placing payoffs before setup to a certain extent, except in the case of agonizingly obvious setups that take forever to pay off. When it comes to grading horror movies, a certain amount of arbitrary physical response factors into the final judgment. You’re Next is trying so hard to scare, with a trembling score that kicks up every time we’re supposed to be on the edge of our seats and portentous framing that lingers compulsively on sharp objects and doors ajar. It’s so repetitively insistent on its scariness and suspense that I found myself worn out from a lack of response on my part. I sat there with the hair on the back of my neck firmly flat, the flesh of my arms resolutely unmarked by goosebumps, my heart rate steady, my spine without even the slightest tingle.

There’s something to be said for the ritualistic appeal of horror movies, even if they don’t make for an entertaining experience in and of themselves. Here we have the cold open kills, followed by a smash cut to setup as the characters gather in a big house in the country. It starts out as something of a bland family dramedy if it weren’t for the score going about its ominous business in the background and the camera prone to slinking off to find the odd bits of foreshadowing placed in corners of its attention. There’s the freshly retired father (Rob Moran) and anxious mother (Re-Animator’s Barbara Crampton, a living reminder of better horror films past). There’s an English professor son (A.J. Bowen) and his ex-student-turned-girlfriend (Step Up 3D’s Sharni Vinson). There’s a daughter (Upstream Color’s Amy Seimetz), her boyfriend (talented horror director Ti West), two more sons (Joe Swanberg, Nicholas Tucci) and their respective girlfriends (Sarah Myers and Wendy Glenn). Things are gently tense, like a bad family reunion you wouldn’t want to go to, especially since they aren’t your family and you don’t know anyone there or why they’re so prickly with each other.

By the time the arrows start flying and the blood starts flowing, the movie lurches into action. Having unconvincingly set up the family dynamics, we now watch as each and every character is terrified, threatened, assaulted, and eventually killed in ways that are awfully generic as far as horror kills go. The one marginally clever kill, right near the end, is gross and unexpected. When one character asks where’s so-and-so, another responds by flatly describing the implement of death. The response? “Oh? Okay.” There’s a comical flatness to the proceedings, with little sense of escalation. One character – Vinson’s – jumps into action so quickly, ordering people around, strategizing the best way to fight back and stay alive, that the movie’s almost over before we get a tossed off explanation for her eerily helpful survivalist skills. Another character spends longer than you’d think wandering around with an arrow stuck in his back. The way the characters react is largely laughable, sometimes on purpose, but just as often to suit the convenience of the strained plotting.

Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, the movie had its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, building up some good word of mouth on the festival circuit before being bought and shelved by Lionsgate. The company has finally seen fit to release it now in a dubiously complimentary late-August release date. In the meantime Wingard and Barrett collaborated on short horror contributions to the punishing omnibus films V/H/S and The ABCs of Death. The years of wait are a mixed blessing for You’re Next, building anticipation that could easily leave an audience wondering what all the fuss was about. I found myself wondering, what with these fresh voices and a cast culled from their friends and colleagues from the festival circuit, why this was the best the filmmakers could come up with. It’s a thin, rote horror movie that goes about getting its attempts at scares in the same old way with the same old bloody tired tools. By the time the movie drags itself through its lame twists and the full extent of the attackers’ plot is known, I wasn’t surprised or entertained. I was simply wondering why the characters went to all that trouble. Surely there was an easier way.

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