At a certain point about a third of the way into the home invasion thriller You’re Next, in which a wry indie comedy about a dysfunctional family gathering is interrupted by a wry indie slasher picture, a meathead sitting in the row in front of me started applauding. It was a slow clap. On screen, a man wearing a lamb mask had just punched a woman, hard, the force of his blow pushing her through a window. The meathead chuckled appreciatively before putting his hands together for the psycho. The woman crawled on the broken glass until the man in the mask pushed the sole of his boot into the top of her head, his axe following the arc of a golf swing before finding its mark. The meathead tittered delightedly about this and muttered something that I chose to ignore.
Granted, misogynist glee wasn’t completely without a catalyst in this film, which had taken pains to establish this female character’s snootiness in a conversation with her randy boyfriend, played by a creepy Joe Swanberg. (“Not feelin’ this,” she tells him as he undresses her. Indeed.) The role is credited on screen as “Sarah Myers,” but IMDb identifies her as Margaret Laney, as do the production notes. Did Laney declined an accurate credit in a half-hearted effort at keeping it off her resume? I wouldn’t blame her. She’s the victim of the film’s single indulgence in out-and-out sadism.
The whole display, which played like an exercise in fan service for the least empathetic among us, threw me off at the time because the film had already clearly established the righteousness of a different female character, Erin (Sharni Vinson), whose resourcefulness carries the show. Vinson, an Australian actress and dancer, is known mainly in the U.S. for her role in Step Up 3D, and she’s more than solid in a physically demanding role. From the get-go, after the first dinner guest drops dead of the acute entry of a crossbow to his head, it’s Erin who’s working the tactical angles of the space, low to the ground, picking up pieces of furniture for shelter as she moves about the room. It’s Erin who’s working on a strategy for survival, rather than just scrambling pointlessly around the scene of the crimes. In a tradition of horror movies where men freak out and women start screaming as soon as the blood hits the blade, it’s damned refreshing.
So I wasn’t rooting for dickish Drake (Swanberg) and his snobby girlfriend, or daddy’s-girl Aimee (Amy Seimetz) and her documentarian beau (Ti West), or nondescript Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his self-absorbed neo-goth squeeze Zee (Wendy Glenn). I wasn’t remotely interested in the fate of sensitive, diffident Crispian (AJ Bowen), though he was the one who brought Erin to this dysfunctional family gathering. But Erin, yes — Erin the brave, Erin the clever, Erin triumphant. Erin was obviously being positioned as the film’s final girl, though I’ll just note that director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (who also appears as one of the three masked killers) can’t help but keep the twists coming even after she seems to have won the day.
The only Adam Wingard films I had seen before You’re Next were his segments of V/H/S and V/H/S 2. The first film’s “Tape 56″ didn’t inspire confidence, give that it was the weakest and laziest of that film’s scenarios, but the sequel’s “Phase I Clinical Trials” was markedly better — not great, but creepy and assured — and I can only assume it was shot after the 2011 premiere of You’re Next. And You’re Next is pretty satisfying as a semi-horror film, sparring gamely with genre conventions rather than embracing or spoofing them outright. Mostly, it’s a straightforward action thriller that staggers across the line into horror territory thanks to its team-slasher conceit, which has a trio of moderately talented thugs aspire to boogie-man status by donning animal masks — a tiger, a lamb, and a fox. There are other genre signals, of course, notably the presence of Barbara Crampton, well-known to horror fans for her role in A-list mad-scientist pic Re-Animator, as the mother of the film’s squabbling clan, a synth-heavy score that nods playfully in the direction of Goblin’s work for Dario Argento and George Romero, and a relatively hearty serving of blood and spatter. Still, you get the feeling Wingard is trying to make a horror movie that pulls back from horror clichés, rather than indulging them outright.
And that brings me back to poor Ms. Laney/Myers, and her pivotal role in the one scene during You’re Next that plays exactly like a scene from any number of forgettable variations on its taciturn slasher v. hysterical babe premise. The victim, a beautiful woman, is given a topless scene, characterized as an overprivileged and spiteful bitch, and then sent out into the countryside, away from the rest of the film’s cast, to die in a spectacularly cruel set piece that plays as a mock tableaux of domestic violence. The meatheads in the audience were aroused by the violence because the scene was designed to get them off. It finishes in phenomenally icky fashion, with the guy in the sheep’s mask sitting down on the couch and surveying his handiwork, breathing heavily, like a clearly deranged serial killer with a distasteful sexual fetish.
But here’s the thing — as it turns out, the killer is not actually a sick fuck. He’s a hired hand helping execute (ha ha) a series of hits in the style of a sick fuck in exchange for a cash payday. From what we see later, he’s not exactly happy to be there. If he’s sitting down and breathing heavy, it’s because he’s goddamn well worn out. (As an aside, I really like how generally hapless and ineffective the apparently terrifyingly cruel and/or appallingly smug men of You’re Next turn out to be when things don’t go their way.)
The point is, the scene draws attention to itself, and you need to watch the film to the end in order to understand what’s really going on. In that context, it doesn’t celebrate the audience’s presumed sadism but mocks it instead. As autocritique goes, it’s smart — and sharper than anything that goes on in the clever but condescending Cabin in the Woods. If the scene in question gave you a boner, well, that’s between you and your therapist. But kindly try to keep your demonstrations of pleasure covert. Your idea of audience participation is skeeving the rest of us out.