by Steve Habrat
It’s extremely rare for Hollywood to muster up one semi-decent horror movie a year. Sure, there is always one or two that manage to generate a little bit of buzz before coming out, but once its on the market, they always seem to fall victim to mediocre reviews and lukewarm audience reception. It doesn’t help that most horror movies today are just recycled clichés hidden behind a sleek new mask and wielding a different power tool or kitchen utensil. It appears that 2013 was bound and determined to deliver for horror fans, as we’ve been blessed with three awesome horror movies so far. Earlier this year, we had the good-looking gorefest Evil Dead, a satisfying remake that, yes, could have been spookier. A few weeks ago we got James Wan’s The Conjuring, one of the most solid and terrifying haunted house movies to come out in years. Now we have director Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, a sick, twisted, and totally hilarious spin on the home invasion horror movie. With a giddy cast of unknowns, a script that packs a twist that is sure to have M. Night Shyamalan kicking himself and wondering why he didn’t come up with it, heaping doses of heart-pounding suspense, and some seriously extreme violence, You’re Next refreshes the home invasion horror movie and gives genre fans a brand new heroine that is destined to become as iconic as The Evil Dead’s Ash, Halloween’s Laurie Strode, and The Thing’s MacReady.
You’re Next begins with the wealthy couple, Paul (played by Rob Moran) and Aubrey (played by Barbara Crampton), inviting their four adult children, Crispian (played by AJ Bowen), Drake (played by Joe Swanberg), Felix (played by Nicholas Tucci), and Aimee (played by Amy Seimetz), and their significant others, Erin (played by Sharni Vinson), Kelly (played by Margaret Laney), Zee (played by Wendy Glenn), and Tariq (played by Ti West), up to their secluded country mansion for their wedding anniversary. The family members begin trying to reconnect but their fun-filled weekend is violently interrupted when three men in animal masks suddenly attack the family. With the group in hysterics, the masked maniacs believe it will be easy to pick the family members off one by one, but they get a huge surprise when the sweet little Erin shows off her survival skills and turns the tables on the killers.
Earlier this summer, audiences flocked to the futuristic thriller The Purge, a film that advertised itself as a razor-sharp, politically charged home invasion thriller, but quickly revealed itself to be nothing more than a by-the-number morality tale that borrowed heavily from Sam Peckinpah’s haunting classic Straw Dogs, but with none of the bite. It didn’t help that The Purge never even considered having any fun with its premise, especially after coming in the wake of the unblinking 2008 film The Strangers, a piece that was inspired by the Manson family, and the forgettable 2011 remake of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Thankfully, You’re Next never falls victim to the same clichés that The Purge did and it does dare to have a bit of fun with its premise. Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett certainly do know how to keep the audience on the edge of their seat and they are certainly skilled with the placing of their jump scares, but every single time You’re Next seems to be veering onto the beaten path, Wingard and Barrett spring some sort of surprise twist on the viewer or broadside us with a clever belly laugh right in the thick of the horror. They’re also completely game to play into their hard R-rating, willing to chop, cut, slash, smash, shoot, and…um…. blend their victims with maniacal glee. In the final stretch of the film, Wingard and Barrett unleash a truly unique death sequence that will have viewers everywhere screaming, laughing, and applauding all at once.
Further setting You’re Next apart from the group of home invasion thrillers is the actors and actresses that filmmakers decided upon. There is no Liv Tyler, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Alexander Skarsgard, or Ethan Hawke anywhere near this secluded mansion. The cast is made up of several independent actors, horror and mumblecore directors, and, yes, one Australian R&B singer. The star of the mayhem is R&B singer Sharni Vinson, who brings the house down as the resourceful survivor Erin. She is excellent early on as a sweet, semi-shy, and slightly mysterious college gal who melts when she exchanges glances with boyfriend Crispian, but when the arrows start flying through the windows, she morphs into cool, clam, and collected bad ass for the ages. When the heat is on, Wingard and Barrett really let the viewer get to know her and, boy, do they leave you wanting more out of this little firecracker. Rising horror star AJ Bowen is great as the pudgy Crispian and he has some hilarious exchanges with indie director/actor Joe Swanberg. Swanberg threatens to steal the film as the sarcastic pill-popper Drake, a guy who always has a zinger for the chaos. Tucci’s Felix and Glenn’s Zee are bizarre as a gloomy couple looking to spice up their relationship in the most twisted way possible. Laney’s Kelly and Seimetz’s Aimee are hilariously over the top as the typical hysterical girls driven to tears and shrieks when the masked madmen come calling. Horror director Ti West also stops by for a chuckle-worthy cameo as the starving artist Tariq, a documentary filmmaker who has made only one film… back in 2008.
In addition to the performances, the sickening violence, and the clever twists, You’re Next is ripe with a claustrophobic and isolated feel that makes you wonder if there truly is any hope for the characters. It effortlessly clears all the hurdles (the whole cell phone reception cliché is smartly tackled here) that most horror films take a tumble over. It should also be noted that as the film progresses, it takes on a retro feel that made this horror fan grin in delight. It begins to feel like Wingard and Barrett were shopping at a garage sale when they happened upon some long-lost horror film from the 1980s and decided to show it to the public. There is candle-wax blood spurting from sliced necks and a synthesizer score that will make you shudder. Another miracle here is that the film is wildly consistent, getting better with each passing second before arriving at one final twist that is sure to have your jaw on the floor. Overall, if you were one of those people who were letdown by the lackadaisical approach to The Purge, You’re Next is guaranteed to simultaneously scare you silly, have you yelling at the screen, and have you doubled over in laughter. For best results, go in with very little knowledge of the film and bring a barf bag. Those with touchy tummies may need one.
by Steve Habrat
Director Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a fussy tribute to 1980’s horror films, would have seemed right at home in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. Perhaps Grindhouse was supposed to be a triple feature and this is a long lost entry?! From the retro opening credits to the coarse camerawork, all the film needed was some digital scratches added in and this could have been a long lost film from the 1980s. For a good majority of its runtime, The House of the Devil is all superb build up. West mounts tension like a pro and leaves the viewer wondering where the film is going to go. Those who have no prior knowledge about the film are in for a shock when the finale roars onto the screen. The climax is both a blessing and a curse for The House of the Devil, satisfying the monster movie crowd while also driving the film into excessively bloody territory. It is the go-for-broke finale that also makes the film seem like it was the forgotten addition to Grindhouse.
Levelheaded college student named Samantha (Played by Jocelin Donahue) is desperate to get out of her dorm where she shacks up with her messy and inconsiderate roommate. Samantha finds the perfect apartment but she is unable to afford the pricey security deposit. The sympathetic landlady agrees to let her have the apartment for just the first month’s rent, which is still slightly a problem for Samantha because she has very little money in her checking account. Samantha soon discovers an odd babysitting job for the vague Mr. Ulman (Played by Tom Noonan), which promises to pay a large sum of money for one night of work. Much to the protests of her best friend Megan (Played by Greta Gerwig), Samantha agrees to take the job, even though the description is slightly suspicious. The babysitting job also happens to line up with a rare lunar eclipse, which has the whole college town buzzing. As the night goes on, Samantha begins to suspect that there is more to the babysitting job than she has been lead to believe.
Director West refuses to hold our hand through much of The House of the Devil, leaving us stranded alone with the protagonist Samantha. West understands that by limiting the amount of characters, it ups the horror ante. We aren’t given the reassurance that multiple characters bring to the table, allowing us to take shelter in the thought that at least a few of these people will make it through the horror. Oh no, Samantha endures a night of terror alone with basically no hope for help, a touch that I really loved. It harkened back to the first time I watched Evil Dead, and the agonizing experience of watching Ash fight to see the morning all by himself. But West also refuses to spoon feed the many plot points to the audience, an approach that both aids in the horror of The House of the Devil but also hurts the payoff. One character’s identity is largely unknown to the audience (although you should be able to pinpoint who he is rather quickly if you are pay attention) and the bloody ending is a bit incoherent and left up for debate with what was actually happening. The incoherent ending does have a plus side, mostly because our lack of information at the end does add to the spookiness of the events that we witness.
West also deserves credit for what he does with set direction and accomplishing the task of transporting us back to the eighties with just a few costumes, a car, an old television set, and a dated pizza shop. It’s obvious that the budget was tight on The House of the Devil, something that always is beneficial because when horror gets a lot of money, valid scares and atmosphere are replaced with CGI monsters. Yet with some high-rise jeans, a Walkman, some clever song usage, and the actual appliance of make-up of the climax’s monster, West achieves a lot with very little. It genuinely feels like it is from the heyday of horror, when things were a lot more restrained and we were a much more patient audience. West allows the style to almost work as a third character, allowing it to grow on screen as the film moves along. I was almost anxious to see what little touch he would throw in next. It culminated in a horror movie special on the local channel that plays George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Very cool, West! I call the style in The House of the Devil a character because it is something that older viewers who lived through and clearly remember this era can relate to, have fun with, and reminisce over. West clearly isn’t doing it just because he thinks its hip.
The acting in The House of the Devil is also top notch, always serious and never hammy. The credit falls on the shoulders of Donahue, who does much of her acting alone. She’s a bit geeky but in a cute way. She is studious, driven, and organized, aspects of her personality that we gather both visually (from her dorm room) and verbally (she is kind of a worrywart). I found myself genuinely fearing for because I found her to be such a sweet girl. I also loved her interaction with her pal Megan. Gerwig gives Megan a feisty side, laying on the opposites attract device rather thick. It’s all in a friendship way in this film. Megan seems more interested in going out and having a good time where Samantha seems like more of a shut in. Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman is heavily suspicious from his first appearance, playing a tense and faintly sympathetic bad guy. Mary Woronov shows up briefly as Mrs. Ulman, who seems like more of a threat than Mr. Ulman. AJ Bowen shows up as a mysterious bearded man who stalks the home that Samantha is watching.
The House of the Devil is for the diehard fans of the horror genre. Those seeking a fast paced thrill ride will be severely disappointed with what West serves up. The resourcefulness is focused and regimented and the build up is the work of someone who knows how to generate dread in anticipation, something largely missing in mainstream gorefests. When researching the film, I found out that the film was released in VHS form for the promotional side of the film, something that adds to the character of the style and adding to the forgotten gem from the early eighties feel. West did a great job making me feel like I found the movie on the dusty shelves of a run down video store. I wish that West had tweaked the final twenty minutes of the film and toned down some of the absurdity of it. The House of the Devil is scary; that I promise you (one scene near the end really freaked me out and all that you see is a hand coming out of a cracked door) and it is perfect to watch late at night with all the lights out (which I did). Despite its flaws, it’s the perfect sleepover movie or midnight flick for those who long for a time when horror actually had some balls.
The House of the Devil is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.