Halloween may not been the first masked killer movie (arriving four years after Leatherface), but the implacable Michael Myers’ shadow stretches long across the genre; establishing many significant tropes (the killer is invulnerable until he is unmasked. A perfunctory backstory that doesn’t disguise how the masked man – it’s always a man – stands in for an unsympathetic world crushing the protagonists beneath its obstinate boots. Oh, and the “if you have sex you die” thing), and holding sway as a daunting yardstick.
Plenty of films followed in Carpenter’s footsteps, but none could live up to the precise artistry of Halloween; not until Scream’s satirical and scary reinterpretation of the genre. With the notion of a grim, faceless killer increasing played out, subsequent films had two paths – a Scream-inspired sardonic approach (Hatchet, Behind the Mask) or to double down on the pain and misery (The Strangers, The Collection). These films aren’t bad, but they have their problems: the satires sacrifice the horror that should characterise the genre, while the grislier films tend to lose momentum as there’s only so long that torment and torture can remain compelling.
You’re Next isn’t a game-changer, but by rummaging through the rusty, crumbling wreckage of the genre it produces an engaging, intelligent thriller. From the trailer, you might expect a straightforward home invasion film; instead, the film twists innumerable genre tropes into something greater than the sum of its parts. The film has clear respect for its forebears (there’s a pervasive ‘80s slasher vibe and conscious references to Halloween, The Shining and Night of the Living Dead).
You’re Next spends its first act as a typical slasher, complete with mediocre acting and poor decision-making as its cast is culled, but pivots midway through into gritty, survivalist action. This tonal shift has the side-effect of sapping the film of tension, so the filmmakers respond by gradually injecting humour into a previously grim script. By the finale, You’re Next has transformed from a white-knuckle thriller to a remarkably funny experience. What sets this apart from its comedic counterparts is the clever way it uses humour only after ratcheting up the intensity; the last act serves as a welcome release from earlier tension.
You’re Next may not equal Halloween, but it demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of the weaknesses of the genre, which allows it to deftly avoid such pitfalls to produce a fresh, vibrant example of modern horror cinema.