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
Over the past few years, the tanking horror genre has been desperately searching for a way to make itself scary again. For a while, it turned to “torture porn” and the Saw franchise in the hopes that people would tremble in fear, but Jigsaw and his merry band of copycats soon wore out audiences with their gore-drenched games (When the singer from Linkin Park is starring in your movie, you know you’ve hit rock bottom.). With interest diminishing in torture porn, Hollywood then turned to the “found footage” subgenre to instill fear in the hearts of every man, woman, and child. The result was the lackluster Paranormal Activity, a film that grew increasingly frustrating the more one thinks back to it. Naturally, Paranormal Activity was a huge success and three pointless sequels and more copy cats emerged in its wake. There is no doubt that the “found footage” well is running dry, but miraculously, a handful of up-and-coming horror directors (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence) found a way to put a relatively creative spin on the subgenre. Acting as more of a Tales from the Crypt anthology, V/H/S is a flawed but surprisingly devilish “found footage” flick that will certainly impress but not totally floor horror fans looking for a decent scare. These days, it really doesn’t take much to impress us, even if you deliver a film that is half good, it ends up being a winner. V/H/S is bound and determined to win us over, bringing everything from ghosts to aliens to slasher killers to vampires to the party.
V/H/S picks up with a group of small time thugs being asked by an unknown employer to break in to a secluded home and steal a mysterious videotape. The thugs are not told what is on the tape, only that the will know it when the see it. As the thugs explore the home, they stumble upon a room with a dead body propped up in front of several television screens and a VHS player. Curiosity gets the best of them and they begin watching the video insider the player. The thugs witness a bizarre string of videos that include three obnoxious guys trying to pick up girls at a local bar, a married couple on their honeymoon, four friends on a camping trip, a video chat between a disturbed young woman and her boyfriend, and a Halloween video of four friends exploring what they assume is a staged haunted house. All the videos seem to start harmless enough, but each segment soon erupts into unspeakable horror and carnage.
V/H/S is the type of film that gets by with the element of surprise. You can’t wait to see how each of the segments, which all last about twenty minutes, will play out and spiral out of control. Being an anthology, the segments end up being hit or miss, which ends up throwing the entire project off. The strongest installment is without question Ti West’s unsettling “Second Honeymoon,” which relies on eerie knocking on a hotel door and a staggeringly realistic murder to spook the audience. It was easily the strongest twenty minutes of the entire movie, unsurprising because West is certainly a talented guy (See The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers for further proof). Perhaps the lowest point of V/H/S was Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th,” a Friday the 13th style slasher with perhaps the goofiest killer ever conceived. This is where the quality really dips and the lull carries over into Joe Swanberg’s bizarre “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” This segment starts off creepy enough but manages to completely fall apart as it goes on, even though it unleashes an impressive twist in the final few minutes. The other two installments, David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” and Radio Silence’s “10/31/98,” are wicked fun, especially the Twilight Zone-esque “10/31/98.” The arching story, Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56,” which follows the thugs on their quest to find the tape, is also a real creep out even if it seems a bit anticlimactic (wait for the scene in the basement).
One of the biggest problems with the “found footage” subgenre is the unconvincing acting, which is meant to seem realistic but often comes off as strained or staged. These directors are forced to turn to relatively unknown actors and actresses due to the idea that a well-known face will instantly drain all the “realism” from the experience. V/H/S naturally turns to a cast of relatively unknowns and the results end up being a mixed bag. The best acting comes from Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal in West’s installment and the thugs in Wingard’s segment. I really disliked the thugs of “Tape 56,” who enjoy ambushing young women and lifting up their shirts for the camera. Just hearing the woman scream in terror as they charge her was enough to make this viewer very uncomfortable. The worst acting is definitely found in “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” especially from Daniel Kaufman’s James, a guy who seems to be completely unfazed as an apparition (or is it?) runs into Emily’s bedroom.
If you are someone who likes plenty of gore with their scares, V/H/S has you covered, never shying away from a grisly shot of entrails being ripped out of someone’s chest or a severed head rolling around on the ground (just to name a few). For a film made on a shoestring budget, the effects are absolutely incredible. “10/31/98” is an effects heavy offering and “Second Honeymoon” features a grisly murder that seems a bit too real (there is barely a cut to be found). “Amateur Night” features a nifty shape shifting character and even a brief glimpse of a monster gliding through the air. This proud beast is drenched in darkness to make it extra creepy, relying on the idea that the less is actually more. If you’re the type who favors plenty of gratuitous sex and nudity, you’re also in luck because there is plenty to go around. Boobs are flashed, people film themselves having sex, and the girls are even treated to a full frontal of one terrified male character. Overall, for all the hype surrounding the film, V/H/S actually lives up to all the positive word-of-mouth surrounding it. It certainly would be better if “Tuesday the 17th” and “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” were cut from the middle section of the film but we’re stuck with them. It would also have been nice if the filmmakers found a way to tie everything up in a more satisfying manner, but there is still plenty of creativity to keep this one lodged in your nightmares for quite some time.
V/H/S is available on Blu-ray and DVD.