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Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) and Paul Davison (Rob Moran) decide to celebrate their wedding anniversary by inviting their four children and their significant others to a family reunion at their remote weekend estate. But the family reunion goes awry when their home comes under siege by a mask-wearing team of crossbow-bearing assailants. The family has no idea who’s attacking them, why they’re under attack or if the attackers are inside or outside the cavernous, creaking house. All they know for certain is that nobody is safe. (From LionsGate’s official synopsis)

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Like Drew Godard’s Cabin in the Woods and Jonathan Levine’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Adam Wingard’s You’re Next sat on a shelf, unreleased for so long that it developed something of a cult following without many people actually seeing it. Unlike both of those films ( Cabin in the Woods in particular), You’re Next didn’t turn out to be a meta-textual, post-modern, hard-thinking re-evaluation of the genre – it’s an amusing, Agatha Christie take on the home invasion story. When it was finally released (two years after its completion) it wasn’t met with overwhelming praise from the horror fan community. This mixed reaction confused me, because I had enjoyed it much more than I anticipated when I caught a preview screening last August.

At first, I thought that perhaps my expectations were set too low to accurately appreciate the experience. Wingard’s pre- You’re Next cinematic output had been very spotty. His first feature, Home Sick, was an absurdly messy homage to the horror genre that only really worked when star Tiffany Shepis was firing on all cylinders. It was a half-decent early effort, but his work didn’t really improve over his next couple of feature releases. Pop Skull and A Horrible Way to Die were awkward and his V/H/S or V/H/S/2 entries were weak (I haven’t seen What Fun We’re Having). The ABCs of Death segment he made with You’re Next co-writer Simon Barrett was funny, but not enough to turn around an entire career’s worth of mediocrity. I began watching You’re Next entirely unconvinced Wingard could pull off slick mainstream horror any better than he pulled off high-concept, independent horror. Imagine my surprise when You’re Next ended up being one of my favourite films of any genre released in 2013.

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So how did Wingard and Barrett make such a quantum leap in such a short time? I was baffled until my buddy, Phil Nobile, Jr., explained the surprising lack of praise to me:
Quote: You’re Next sat on the shelf after super-positive word if mouth, just like Cabin in the Woods, so people expected it to be that same kind of next level horror reinvention. Instead, it's the horror version of a perfectly-crafted pop song. People are mad that it's not The White Album.
Suddenly, I realized my confusion over the horror community’s mixed reaction to the film and my questions about the meteoric rise of Wingard’s filmmaking had the same answer – You’re Next is an uncomplicated film. This simplicity didn’t match the horror audience’s predictions and kept Wingard from getting overly cute with his references and high concepts, which made it both an adversary against the film’s box-office prospects (it was sold to mainstream audiences as a standard, straight-faced home invasion film) and the savior of its actual quality. The mystery of You’re Next was that there wasn’t a mystery at all.

Now, ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘stupid’ in this case. You’re Next unravels its relatively predictable/unoriginal plot points and switches between funny and scary moments with the utmost care, yet rarely feels labored. The biggest laughs are the product of the exaggerated violence and this is where Wingard’s sleek, mainstream direction is most important. He blends the glossy scares of late ‘90s thrillers, like Scream, with the more chaotic, shaky-cam grime of modern indie horror, making things appropriately over-the-top without risking the basic reality of the situation (or his R-rating). It’s the kind of wacky violence that gorehounds and normal teenagers can appreciate together. The scary stuff is slightly muted, due to its skew towards dark comedy, but it rarely feels like punches are being pulled artificially for the sake of a bigger audience. The more enduring laughs come from the way Barrett handles characters. Naturalistic dialogue is loaded with wry, knowing jokes that state plainly what most films would explode into melodramatic proportions. It’s arguable that Barrett and the actors overplay the characters’ unlikable qualities during the set-up (the siblings are almost impossibly catty), but this tends to work with the film’s flippant tone. I suppose I have to admit that this naturalism comes out of the mumblecore tradition that I’ve reviled in the past.

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Stunt casting didn’t work for Wingard when he made Home Sick (Bill Mosley and Tom Towels are completely wasted in that picture). This time, he limits himself to a handful of on-the-nose hires and blends them into the tonal texture of the film. The stuntiest cast member is Barbara Crampton, the scream queen of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond, and she’s so unrecognizably ‘normal’ that I didn’t realize it was her until the film was over. A large subsection of the cast is actually made up of Wingard’s mumblecore/indie horror buddies, including Joe Swanberg (writer/director of LOL and Drinking Buddies), Amy Seimetz (writer/director of Sun Don’t Shine), Ti West (writer/director of House of the Devil and The Innkeepers), Larry Fessenden (writer/director of Wendigo and Habit), and Barrett himself (though his lines are mostly grunts and shouts). This casting leads us to one of the funnier moments in the movie, where Swanberg, who plays the douche bag older brother, mercilessly teases West, who plays a scarf-wearing intellectual filmmaker, sarcastically stating that he thinks ‘commercials are the ultimate form of film expression.’ It’s an in-joke that doesn’t require inside information to be funny.

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You’re Next was shot using Red One MX digital cameras. Wingard and cinematographer Andrew Palmero occasionally embrace some of the format’s softness, but it isn’t an obviously digitally shot film in terms of the image’s crispness and the presence of grain (when I saw it in theaters, it was a 35mm projection, so I just assumed it was a 35mm film at the time). The focus is pulled tightly throughout, creating sharp foreground details and only rarely opening out into complex backgrounds. The ‘digital look’ is relegated to the film’s colour palette, which is graded enough to appear stylistically unnatural. The brighter indoor scenes are caked in browns and tans and, most of the time, this palette squeezes out the other hues. The highlights are somewhat flattened by their yellowish quality, but the black levels are still pure enough to create effective depth. Various shades of blue do occasionally escape the brown/tan vortex and these go on to help define the darker scenes (especially the oddly punchy powder blues). Reds are somewhat ‘marooned’ (which is I guess what you get when you mix blue and tan). Though the palette’s style is (mostly) strictly enforced, all but the darkest sequences still feature nicely separated colours without many notable banding effects.

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The Blu-ray comes fitted the usual, uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Like most scary movies that run on jump-scares, You’re Next is meant to be viewed with the volume cranked high. The stereo/surround effects and directional support are minimal, but the wide dynamic ranges are crisp and clear during both mumbled dialogue and ear-piercing screams. These ranges are usually utilized for the sake of a good startle, but the volume contrast is also good for a joke, like the bit where a killer’s big scary musical cue is cut short by the final girl’s antics and replaced by the mundane splats of a handheld meat tenderizer against bone. The center track dialogue is occasionally distorted, specifically when lots of characters start screaming and yelling over each other, but it sounded basically the same in theaters, so this is likely not a compression issue. Mads Heldtberg’s score is at its best when relentlessly undercutting the scary scenes with driving electronic percussion and throbbing bass. The music is spread widely over the stereo and surround channels, creating warm, swirling walls of sound. The Dwight Twilley Band’s ‘Looking for the Magic’ is the one pop music addition to the track and becomes a repeating motif anytime the neighbor’s house is visited, where it is stuck on repeat. The sound designers have fun playing with the song’s fidelity, depending on camera placement and the mental state of the character hearing it (when a character is knocked for a loop, the music vibrates and fades).

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The extras begin with two commentary tracks. The first features Wingard and Barrett discussing the basics of production on a relatively serious slant. Here, we learn about changes made to the original script, attempts to keep the effects practical, budget constraints, the team’s previous films, and the process of creating a ‘conventional’ thriller/horror movie. This is a full-bodied track that is rarely screen-specific and a continuously engaging experience that often feels more like a podcast on modern horror than a commentary track for You’re Next. The second track (which was recorded first) features Wingard & Barrett with actresses Sharni Vinson & Barbara Crampton. This is a more entertaining track and is especially amusing when the filmmakers’ attempts to keep the discussion more technical are derailed by more personable anecdotes. There’s not a lot of overlap between the two tracks – not surprisingly, this one covers general casting (including changing the lead’s nationality to Australian after meeting Vinson), building the characters, and working with actors.

Up next is No Ordinary Home Invasion: The Making Of You’re Next (11:40, HD), a decent EPK that includes interviews with Wingard, Barrett, cinematographer Andrew Palmero, and cast members Vinson, Crampton, A. J. Bowen & Nicolas Tucci, alongside behind-the-scenes footage and storyboards. The extras are wrapped up with trailers.

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You’re Next is perhaps proof that director Adam Wingard is a smart mainstream director that mistakenly thought he was a clever independent filmmaker. It is not what most fans and critics were expecting and does a fantastic job of achieving its very simple goals. To continue my friend Phil’s analogy, it is a Ramones punk rock bubblegum pop cover to Cabin in the Woods’ revisionist, prog-rock remix. LionsGate’s Blu-ray comes fitted with a clean picture, dynamic audio, and extras that include two equally entertaining, yet largely different commentary tracks.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.