Our prey are burrowed into the forested mansion of millionaire Paul Davison, a former defense contractor with "an insane severance package" — ha! — who's hosting a fête for his heavily medicated wife (Barbara Crampton) and their four pretentiously named adult children, Crispian (A.J. Bowen), Felix (Nicholas Tucci), Aimee (Amy Seimetz) and Drake (Joe Swanberg). The kids are whiny, entitled brats, yet each has managed to squire a significant other to dinner. If, deep down, their dates are in it for the inheritance, who cares? Soon, everyone at the table will be served up like a pork chop.
Adam Wingard's brisk and brutal thriller celebrates the quick kill. Victims aren't tortured — torture porn is très low class. Instead, they're neatly dispatched by crossbow, machete or knife; with ten people to whack, there's no time to waste. The tension starts when fratty first-born Drake needles middle child Crispian for sleeping with his student (Sharni Vinson), and escalates when someone is shot through the head with an arrow. Forget dessert, and forget forgetting about old resentments. Within minutes, the kids are squabbling over who gets to drive away for help, with babyish Aimee blubbering for the sympathy vote because it's time people believed in her, daddy.
As for the silent-but-deadly killers, a.k.a. Scary Wolf Mask, Scary Tiger Mask and Scary Lamb Mask (what, was the store out of Scary Hamster Mask?): They're tromping around the property in black boots and commando gear like rabbit Rambos, while inside, the Davisons quiver like boiled carrots. Even forced to fight for their lives, the family is so soft that we start to suspect they're deliberately acting dumb. What doomed moron wanders alone through a murder house? It's like watching a nature show where the gazelle turns to the hyena and says, "God, already — just get it over with."
"Why would anybody do this?" shrieks Drake. The answer matters and it doesn't. Unlike most horror flicks, which save their creativity for elaborate killers (It's a ghoul! From Egypt! Who was molested by his great-aunt and wears her skin as a mask!) or elaborate kills (It's an ice pick attached to a corkscrew attached to a forklift that's now attached to your face!), You're Next streamlines the gory stuff for something truly shocking: good characters.
Not deep, mind you. But characters who are crayoned in bright enough that they're interesting even while alive. It isn't immune to cliché. The first sexually active girl is offed before she puts her shirt on — c'mon, guys, she didn't even climax — and we can't test the minority-male-gets-killed-second rule because, well, these rich white folks don't have any minority friends. Otherwise, Simon Barrett's fleet-footed script manages to kill a stretch Hummer's worth of fools without feeling like a been-done-to-death death march.
At the risk of scaring away audiences who hate nerds, You're Next is a horror movie for film students. Who else would get the sly joke of casting low-budget splatter director Ti West (The House of the Devil with Greta Gerwig) as Aimee's boyfriend, Tariq, and mumblecore captain Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, also with Greta Gerwig) as an uncultured meathead who argues that TV commercials are the pinnacle of art?
Swanberg, who has the face of an Archie Comics villain and the filmography of a hyperactive child, is great. Though he shot six features in 2011 alone, it's tempting to say his work here is the best thing he's ever done — but that would be shortchanging his new anti-romance Drinking Buddies, which is also great and opens the same day as You're Next. (If Drinking Buddies gets trounced at the box office, Wingard and Barrett should make sure Swanberg didn't swipe a machete from the set. As noted when Swanberg beat up a critic who called his films "the blandest, most self-indulgent bullshit," the guy has a temper.)
But the real badass of You're Next is the tanned and whippet-tough Erin, played by Vinson, an Australian starlet best known for dancing with a Slurpee in Step Up 3D. (That's no insult — Step Up 3D is fantastic.) Thanks to a tough Outback upbringing 10,000 miles away from the prep schools that sheltered her cowardly bearded boyfriend, Erin is the only girl who didn't wear heels to dinner and the only victim who knows how to fight back. Not that her blue collar heroics go appreciated by anyone besides the audience: When she bashes a villain's brains on the floor, the aghast family looks at her as though she's used the wrong fork. As Erin battles to stay alive, the minimal Halloween-esque score slowly starts to sound like an applauding didgeridoo. In this mansion, the 99 percent is outnumbered — but it's a safe bet that by the final frame, she can balance the power. Zuccotti Park coulda used a girl like her.