As far as horror films go, Adam Wingard’s You’re Next is mild. It is by no means Saw or Nightmare on Elm Street. But it is still a horror film, though it beats to its own drum. Wingard’s approach is strike and go. He does not linger on the blood or violence. There is more to this story than that.
In You’re Next, a wealthy couple invite their grown children and their partners to their isolated estate. As the family gathers, it is a very typical dysfunctional family dinner. Old rivalries that have resided in deep resentment surface. During a heated argument at the dinner table, one boyfriend notices something outside. He stands up to look out the window. He is the first of this family to fall fate to the animal masked men outside the home. Ironically, the boyfriend is a documentary filmmaker who is portrayed by horror film maker Ti West.
The message “You’re Next” is scrawled around the house. So, we the humble horror film viewer, know that there is more to come. The film, however, has a few plot turns that are unexpected. Mainly the character of Erin, the girlfriend of one of the sons. Sharni Vinson is by the far the best part of this film. As Erin she is a strong, independent, leader and survivor. When all the mess hits the fan, she goes into survival mode. She does what she learned to do growing up in Australia. It is natural for her, unlike her boyfriend who runs off. This sets Erin apart from this family that she marry into.
Erin is the only one who does not give up. She is only one who does what she must to survive. She will not allow this darkness, this violence, this injustice, to win. And it’s not easy. She sets up traps and arms herself with an axe. The true difficult moment comes when she figures out who is behind all of this violence.
At the heart of this film (do horror films have hearts?) is family. The problem that the film presents for us is that the darkness, the violence, the injustice that we experience can be at the hands of our family. It quickly becomes clear that the family reunion has been hijacked to ensure that one son gets an inheritance much sooner than planned.
It is hard to believe that family would do this to family. Paul Tillich taught that the thing we care about the most – the thing that motivates us to do the things that we do – becomes our ultimate concern. And that ultimate concern becomes our religion.
And, let’s face it, people do crazy things for their religion. Even kill?
This film was marketed to those viewers who wanted more Paranormal Activity. Some of them may have been disappointed. More disappointing, however, is the number of viewers who most likely did not see the film because they were told it was more like Paranormal Activity. I found it more like a M. Night Shyamalan film. A drama filled with suspense and uncertainty as to what would happen next.
As the film opens, we see images of a quiet, peaceful suburban community. But not all is peaceful. There are signs outside of homes that say, “Bank Owned.” As we meet the Barrett family, we learn quickly that life is stressful. Daniel (Josh Hamilton) was laid off of his job, and has been struggling to find a new job. Lacy (Keri Russell) is a realtor having trouble selling a house in their neighborhood. Jesse is the teenage son coming to age, interested in girls and becoming his own person.
Life, we learn from the Barretts, is tough. It is Sam, the younger son, who brings this reality to home for us the best. Sam is the picture perfect example of an innocent child. We first meet Sam as he decides that he is going to nurse a lizard with a missing tail back to health instead of letting it go. Sam is compassionate, kind, and gentle. He is the exact opposite of the world around him.
The midst of normal day-to-day life struggles, a series of unexplainable events begin to occur in the house. Daniel and Lacy do everything they can think of to figure out what is going on and to protect themselves. One day Lacy gets on the internet to do some research. She finds a site titled, “How to know you’ve been chosen.” There are pictures that are too similar to what has been happening in her home. While it is hard to believe, Lacy begins to think that aliens are behind it all.
J. K. Simmons plays Edwin Pollard, a conspiracy theory kind of character, with newspaper clippings over his apartment walls. At first Daniel and Lacy are not sure if he can help them. But when Pollard begins asking questions, they quickly learn that he is the right person to go to. Pollard advices that they can protect themselves. He tells them, “The invasion already happened.” The aliens, he advised, are most likely coming back for the first person in the family whom they made contact with. Daniel and Lacy assume that it is Sam because of the strange behavior. But was it?
The film was grossly overlooked when it came out in theaters. While I think that in part it was because of its marketing, but some critics didn’t care for it. The film isn’t an Oscar-winning film, but it is engaging. It has this power about it that draws the viewer in. It deserves a second look.
And the film is more than just about aliens. As with Shyamalan’s films, director and write Scott Stewart draws an interesting commentary about American culture and the state of humanity. It is not a mistake, in my opinion, that Lacy is a realtor who cannot sell a house. She represents the failing housing market that contributed to the recession the United States experienced, resulting in people being laid off, finding themselves behind in payments, and discerning what they can do without.
And possibly the greatest impact is the amount of stress it all puts on the family unit. Pollard, when educating Daniel and Lacy about the aliens says to them, “They use our fears against us.” Fear is a powerful force. Fear clouds our minds and drives a wedge between us and others. We see this with Daniel’s relationship with Lacy and his sons, especially with Jesse. Daniel and Lacy, it is implied, have not been intimate in some time. While Daniel is searching for a new job, Lacy is working extra hard. And in the meantime, Jesse seems to be drawing farther and farther away from them.
The more fear there is that works against us, the more paralyzed we become to do anything for the common good. The Bible tells us in multiple places, like Hebrews 13:6, that we do not need to fear, because God is our help. With God, all things are possible, and we do not need to fear.
The very last word of the film (I will not spoil it for) reinforces the theme that we cannot live in fear.