You’re Next premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2011, so word about it has already been rumbling around for the past few years. It’s anyone’s guess why the film took so long getting to mainstream audiences, since its reception seemed overwhelmingly positive.

In particular, a lot of praise was heaped onto director/editor Adam Wingard, who had previously made his name with a bunch of horror short films. Most notably, he directed segments for V/H/S, its sequel, and The ABCs of Death. That’s not to say he’s making his feature debut with this movie, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. Wingard had previously directed such underground hits as Home Sick, Pop Skull, and A Horrible Way to Die. Ever heard of them? Me neither.

This may not be Wingard’s debut, but it’s absolutely his big break. This was the first of Wingard’s movies to capture any degree of mainstream recognition, and his first chance to show the world what he could really do. And based purely on this film, I’d say that Wingard isn’t ready for primetime. He’s got a lot of potential, to be sure, but he’s not quite there yet.

Getting around to the movie, You’re Next is a standard horror movie in the “home invasion” subgenre. Some people are in a house, unknown attackers are trying to break in and kill everyone, and our potential victims defend their turf. So let’s meet our victim pool.

Our narrative focuses on the Davison family. Its patriarch (Paul, played by Rob Moran) recently got a huge severance package after retiring from work with a military contractor. With his newfound time and money, Paul bought an abandoned cabin in the woods and turned it into a bona fide mansion. And to celebrate their 35th anniversary, Paul and his wife (Aubrey, played by champion scream queen Barbara Crampton) have gone to spend a few days in their new vacation home.

But of course, it wouldn’t be an anniversary celebration if the whole family didn’t join in. Paul and Aubrey have four kids, all of whom arrive one by one with their significant others. The first to show up is Crispian (AJ Bowen), a college instructor currently dating one of his former students (Erin, played by Sharni Vinson). We then meet Crispian’s asshole older brother (Drake, played by Joe Swanberg), who’s come with his asshole wife (Kelly, played by Margaret Laney). Next up is the spoiled ditzy princess of the family (Aimee, played by Amy Seimetz), who’s presently dating a documentary filmmaker (Tariq, played by Ti West). Last but not least is the group’s little brother, Felix, and his girlfriend, known only as “Zee” (respectively played by Nicholas Tucci and Wendy Glenn).

So they all get together for dinner, standard family arguments ensue, and then strange men in animal masks drop in to make everything go horribly wrong.

Just to get this out of the way, the horror aspect of this movie is totally fine. The kills are nicely creative and presented with just the right amount of gore. The “home invasion” premise calls for standard household items to be used in violent ways, and the movie tackles that challenge with aplomb. The atmosphere is rock-solid and occasionally presented with some very clever touches. Yes, the shaky-cam can get a little obnoxious in places, and the score is extremely overbearing throughout, but I can forgive both for the sake of the atmosphere. This film sets up its scares with uncommon skill, and that earns it a great deal of credit.

On a technical and objective level, there’s nothing wrong with this movie. But in terms of story, character development, and thematic value, there’s essentially nothing here.

With the possible exception of Erin, who eventually becomes our de facto protagonist, none of these characters are remotely interesting or sympathetic. It doesn’t help that we have so many of them to establish, and pretty much all of them are killed off before given a chance to develop into someone worth rooting for.

I didn’t remotely care about the potential victims, but I was very intrigued by the villains. I guess that’s one of the perks in working with the horror genre: The monster can be more interesting than the hero and it’s okay. In this case, I really wanted to know who these killers were, why they were attacking this family, and if they were really even human.

But then the answers came. And I could only go “Seriously?!” That was the movie’s one chance to do something original and thematically relevant, and it only came up with a big fat zero. Huge waste of potential.

Sometimes, the film couldn’t even deliver on its own setups. We’re shown and told that Aubrey is taking unknown prescription medicine for some unknown disorder, and nothing is done with it. There are multiple times when the film shows us close-ups of a stereo cycling endlessly through repeats of the same CD, and it’s all completely for naught. Last but not least, there’s the film’s animal motif. This movie could easily have used the animal-masked killers as a metaphor, presenting the symbolic conflict of man vs. nature in a new and interesting way. But the filmmakers couldn’t even get that right.

When all is said and done, I think that You’re Next works better as a demo reel for Adam Wingard than a movie in itself. The guy clearly has chops, and his ability to set up a scary atmosphere is quite impressive. Unfortunately, he seems to be one of those talented filmmakers in desperate need of a good screenplay. If this movie had any interesting characters, creative thematic statements, or any semblance of novelty in the story, this might have been an instant classic. As it is, the film is only technically proficient and not much else.

If you’re looking for a scary and forgettable way to pass an hour and a half, go watch The Conjuring. Or maybe wait a couple of weeks for Insidious: Chapter 2. But if you want a quick horror fix that didn’t come from James Wan, go ahead and give You’re Next a try.

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