February is Women in Horror month, so it was a good thing I decided to watch You’re Next by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. What starts out as yet another home invasion/slasher movie effortlessly switches directions, taking the Final Girl trope to a badass extreme. Part John Carpenter, part Wes Craven, part R-rated Home Alone, You’re Next is a pleasant surprise and a hell of a good time.
The movie begins with a family reunion* meant to celebrate the parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. All three sons and one daughter, as well as their significant others, arrive at a secluded mansion in the forest. Petty bickering ensues. Just as these opening scenes begin to drag, several men in animal masks show up to terrorize the family, their dinner now interrupted by chaos and silly amounts of screaming.
There is one character, however, on which we begin focusing more and more: Erin, the Australian girlfriend of one of the brothers. She is the only one who reacts to the situation with some kind of sense, rather than senseless wailing. While the others freak out, she starts locking down the house, gathering weapons from the kitchen drawers, and setting up traps.
As it turns out, Erin was raised on a survivalist compound. Now, what should be a simple, good old-fashioned family slaughter turns into a nightmare… for the killers. That’s right. Guess what, killers? YOU’RE NEXT!
Sharni Vinson, who plays Erin, has some truly gruesome and fantastic scenes during which she unleashes her fighting and survival skills on the assailants. One cool, well-shot scene involves using a flashing camera in the dark. Another involves a blender.
While strong female characters can be found in horror movies, most often the Final Girl survives simply by virtue of being the female lead. Slasher movies subsist on the viewer’s titillation in watching this female suffer, survive mostly through luck rather than her own merits, and slash knives impotently through the air while blubbering uncontrollably into the attacker’s face. Erin delivers something fresh here: a Final Girl who doesn’t run around like a headless chicken but instead takes matters into her own hands and acts like a hero. She’s a little like Dana from The Cabin in the Woods blended with the badassery of the cave divers from The Descent.
More often, male leads are the heroes, while female leads in horror films are portrayed as the victims. This creates a serious power inequality, which is reinforced again and again in popular films. Erin may be physically injured and traumatized throughout the course of You’re Next, but it is clear that she is hero rather than victim, and she alone earns her survival.
While following in the horror tropes that it seeks simultaneously to satirize, You’re Next ends up being both unflinchingly brutal and darkly funny. I found myself thrilled watching this reversal of power dynamics and gender roles, and I’d love to see what the guys behind You’re Next come up with next.*Caveat: before the family reunion gets going, the very first scene of the movie is a sex scene. Why? After seeing the movie, I assume it’s tongue-in-cheek. Don’t worry, though. It only lasts about 3 unsatisfying seconds.