30 August 2013

AIN'T THEM BODIES DEAD

Nearly two years of hype since the film's 2011 Toronto International Film Festival has promised that You're Next was a brilliant dark horror-comedy. I will allow the possibility that I'm dumb as fuck, but not one single moment came across to me as comic. The best case scenario is that director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett were playing the "don't you get it? It's so stupid and bad! On purpose!" card, but that's not being funny, that's being a pair of assholes. It also negates the other part of the hype, that You're Next is an intense and unsparing indie horror film; but if a film is deliberately bad, with flat characters spouting regrettable dialogue and wandering through clichés, it's probably not also a good version of the exact genre it's apparently making fun of.

Reader, I will be blunt: I acutely disliked this movie. It is a home invasion thriller released in the same summer as the conceptually dire The Purge that very nearly succeeds in making The Purge look good in comparison; really, the only thing You're Next gets right that The Purge gets wrong is that Wingard's film boasts a lead performance by Australian actor Sharni Vinson as its Final Girl that is absolutely the best possible iteration of that stock character that this scenario could ever in a hundred years have produced. In a just world, Vinson (whose biggest film, by a massive degree, has been Step Up 3D) will, with this film's release, end up on the radar of casting directors, who will pluck her from the world of crappy low-fi indies and make a great star of her. But the world where Vinson ends up wildly imbalancing You're Next by giving an actual, great performance amongst such an assortment of graceless microbudget indie celebrities (no fewer than four members of a cast of 16 souls are directors) is not a just one.

The film opens with a scene that, for a good while, seems to be just one of those "fuck it, let's start with a murder" gestures that plague slasher films: a gorgeous young woman without any shirt on and a pudgy man with poor facial hair grooming skills (men with questionably grooming paired with women they don't deserve is a pervasive quality of You're Next, though the unexamined sexism of these new indie horror movies is pretty well-established at this point) have just wrapped up a bout of sex that he evidently enjoys more than she did - the opening shot is accompanied by sound design that's deliberately muddying the noise of orgasm with the noise of violent pain - when they are caught out by a man in a fox mask (Lane Hughes), who kills the woman and uses her blood to paint "you're next on the window when the man wanders in unawares. Quicker than you can say "shock cut", we find ourselves in the company of Erin (Vinson), and her boyfriend Crispian (AJ Bowen), traveling to the deep country to visit his defense contractor dad (Rob Moran) - the political implications are raised just long enough to be completely ignored - and homemaker mom (Barbara Crampton, the film's requisite '80s horror movie star) on the event of the their 35th anniversary.

It's quite a full house that they're headed to, in fact, by the time the anniversary starts up, Crispian's siblings Drake (important indie director Joe Swanberg), Aimee (important indie director Amy Seimetz), and Felix (Nicholas Tucci), and their respective significant others Kelly (Margaret Laney, hiding under the name Sarah Myers), Tariq (important indie horror director Ti West), and Zee (Wendy Glenn) will all have shown up, to fail almost immediately at the simple task of not having a screaming match when they're all gathered around the dinner table, and befitting the preponderance of "mumbly human dramas" veterans in the cast, it's not that much of a surprise that this ends up being very much the best-played, most cleverly played scene in the film).

Dinner is abruptly interrupted when Tariq notices movement, and, hoping to get the hell away from the fighting going on, heads to the window to see closer. For his troubles, he ends up with a crossbow bolt to the brain, and the nine remaining attendees of this officially unsuccessful dinner party are dumbstruck into terror by the fox mask man and his colleagues, one wearing a lamb mask (L.C. Holt), one wearing a tiger mask (You're Next writer and important indie producer Simon Barrett).

You're Next continues in a familiar mode from here on out: you might even say, a conspicuously familiar mode: bodies pile up at a truly amazing clip, as people do the absolute dumbest things you could possibly do in their place. While it may well be that Windgard and Barrett are deliberately making a stupid film to poke fun at other stupid films, there comes a point where the difference between bad-on-purpose and just-plain-bad is wholly academic; the point remains that we have a home invasion slasher movie that is full of idiotic behavior by poorly-conceived characters given atrocious lines of dialogue to say, embodied by an almost uniformly terrible cast (Moran is the worst, in a tight race; despite my intense antipathy for Swanberg as a human being, I have to concede that his smug dick portrayal of Drake - a smug dick name if ever I head one - is maybe the second-best piece of acting in the film. Though the gap between 1st and 2nd is larger than the gap between 2nd and last, in this place).

Wingard's aesthetic - either because he doesn't respect the material, or because he's just not that talented (his later work on the tedious anthology film V/H/S suggests a strong possibility it's the latter) - tends to make the action far less enjoyable than it ought to be, as the film fails to differentiate tonally between any pair of scenes once the action starts, and the bodies start to pile up like firewood, mechanistically and dully. Let us say that I am grateful that You're Next kills off its cast at such a speedy pace mostly because it picks up an inertia that the sausage-making approach Wingard takes to his second act sorely needs. Meanwhile, the director and his crew employ that bog-standard low-fi thing that American independent films tend to wallow in, as though being ugly and rough were a source of pride rather than a limitation (though at least You're Next has really great sound recording, my customary bête noire in these things), and while this lends the film a grubby authenticity - and the ubiquitous handheld camera does serve, in places, to make things seem hectic and terrifying - the guttural crudeness of the filmmaking really isn't a substitute for atmosphere, mood, or any kind of visual appeal to speak of. Griminess is become it's own cliché at this point.

By the time the movie devolves into its protracted Final Girl sequence, spiked by one twist that the movie more or less expects us to get ahead of, and one that it apparently doesn't, though a genre-savvy viewer shouldn't have too hard of a time predicting it, it's so divorced from character continuity or story logic that the amount of low-key observational energy that went into establishing the characters in the first act seems even more wasted than it did when it was happening. It's a film about terrible things happening to deeply uninteresting people, making absolutely no claims on the viewer's emotions or engagement, only our ability to feel superior. There are clearly people who love this kind of thing, to judge from the film's warm word of mouth, and I do not blame them - to paraphrase Roger Ebert, I love horror films too much to want anybody to have a bad time at one. But I also love them too much to stand the rank cynicism of You're Next, a film hellbent on being everything but good, sincere horror. Pass.

3/10

13 comments:

Jonathan said...

I don't really disagree with much of anything you said. However, I find that Vinson almost made the whole thing worthwhile.

But God, that opening sequence. I guess you could you could argue the whole "Neighbors needed to be out of the way" BS, but could you have at least made the damn thing suspenseful or somewhat interesting.

MINOR SPOILER BELOW...

And the twist at the end by no means surprised me, but it can not be figured out by following the beats of the story. It had more to do with the fact that I've seen so many movies that I realize if someone disappears that long with nary a mention of their absence they can't really be up to any good. I think it would have been a lot better executed if they had Vinson act like it didn't surprise her.

Maybe I did dislike this as much as you.

Tim said...

Yeah, the opening scene was ridiculous, but I was bagging on the film enough that I decided not to bring it up. There's that line about why the killers needed the neighbors dead, I'll let that be enough for me.

As for the twist, well

MAJOR SPOILER TIME!!!!!

There's a line where one of the killers says "you two" in a way that could not possibly refer to Felix and Zee, and that's what sealed it for me. But too much genre-savviness made that a hugely obvious twist, for the reason you name. I was actually more surprised when Felix turned to be the first inside man.

Aravena said...

Slightly disappointed by your score (the mostly rave reviews had got me excited), but then I guess you're never much a fan of these pseudo-clever satire.

By the way, Tim, have you done some kind of "Best Slashers" list/feature? I asked because I have seen Peeping Tom, liked it a lot and went to check what you've said about it, and was quite surprised to find out that you haven't reviewed it yet (*while having documented seemingly every terribad slasher in existence)

Tim said...

That certainly is the case. Where most reviewers name-drop Scream as though it was a great comparison, all that I could think, every time I read that, was "Oh, please, no". The only thing that I agree with those reviewers on is that You're Next is certainly not as good as Scream.

As for Peeping Tom: that's going to have to be a special sort of review for a special sort of movie, but I can tell you that if I did have such a list, that film would be jostling for the #1 spot with Halloween, The Burning, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Whereas Psycho, I would likely disqualify.

Travis Earl said...

What you review said has pretty much confirmed my apprehensions about the trailer. I had no desire to see it because the whole scenario, down to The Strangers-esque masks, felt so tired and rote. It feels like a movie I've seen many times before. The strong reviews made me interested but I'm saving my horror money for Insidious 2, The Conjuring blew me away.

Rebecca said...

I'm so happy this is terrible because I have hated it since the horrible commercials started airing on Hulu with everything I watch. "Don't bother locking the doors. Animals. DON'T. USE. DOORS." What does that even mean? Yes they do, if they're open. Especially if they are people wearing animal masks instead of animals, and I never got the impression I was supposed to believe they weren't human. Or is it suggesting that the killers clawed their way through a wall fast enough that people couldn't notice and get away? Your review makes it sound like the psychos came through the window, like any normal human can do. Is that what happened? Maybe if it said "Beware. ANIMALS. HAVE. CROSSBOWS." I might have been impressed.

Thrash Til' Death said...

I just saw this last night, actually. I will concede that a lot of your complaints make sense; the acting is generally pretty dreadful, the lo-fi handheld aesthetic is more often a hindrance than a help, and it seems to have a hell of a hard time differentiating between tones (though there was one line that had me laughing out loud).

After all the hype, I was regretting my ticket purchase early on while all the annoying screamy characters were busy arguing and getting killed off. What redeemed it for me was Erin basically hijacking the entire film and turning it into the hard-R rated version of Home Alone. There's something supremely cathartic about watching someone resourceful turn the tables on their oppressors - is there a word for that?

Anyway, I came out feeling like I'd had fun.

Tim said...

Travis- It's DEFINITELY a movie you've seen before, but I guess that's the "point". I dunno. There are definitely huge defenders of the movie, surely one of them could try to sell you on seeing it.

Rebecca- I completely missed those ads, but they sound fantastically awful. Yeah, the killers just come through windows and doors, and they're just plain humans, though now you've got me wishing it was a movie about people who turned into anthropomorphic animals while wearing animal masks, like a slasher movie crossed with Zelda: Majora's Mask.

Also, your alternate tagline is hilarious.

Thrash- I think "cathartic" actually is the word for that. But I definitely feel what you're saying, and it fits in with my own belief that Vinson is by miles and miles the thing that's best in the whole movie. Because she does make for a pretty righteous Final Girl, and while some of that is the writing, I think it's because she's so much more believably badass than most twig-thin girls in movies.

Rebecca said...

Tim, can we make that movie?

JD said...

Seconded. I'm not usually one for horror movies, but I would totally watch the hell out of that. I'd even donate a meager sum to a Kickstarter for it.

Neil Fulwood said...

Christ, this one was frustrating. Bloody awful opening scene, terrible acting (and it doesn't help that Crampton and Moran look maybe a decade older than their supposed offspring), and easily guessable twists. But, man, is Vinson some kind of awesome! One of the all-time great final girls. Sometimes it really is the performance that makes the film. Heaven knows, in this case it certainly isn't the script or the direction!

Mike Gibson said...

I'm just popping in to award Tim 10 internet points for his correct spelling of the word ridiculous!

Mike Gibson said...

Well, I don't remember writing that in a drunken stupor so many months ago....

I have now seen this and while I didn't think much of it was "good" I did have a good time watching it. That girl and I are kindred spirits when it comes to how i imagine I would react to crazy animals with crossbows. She makes the movie worth it.