Masked Psychopaths: “You're Next"

STORY BY James Sullivan

Published: November 15, 2013

How refreshing it was to sit through a horror movie in which the anticipation that quickly turned to churning and uneasiness was not related to discomfort at how one-dimensional the characters were, how spectacularly stupid the decisions (or one-liners) that they made, or how lazy the surprise twist ending was. Rather, I sat ensconced, shivering when I first realized I was face to face with one of the masked psychopaths who leave behind only the message “You're next,” at the scene of the crime, and the crime scenes themselves here are enough to justify the cliché of the forensic expert vomiting when he arrives (although you can rest assured that it doesn't appear in this movie.)

Erin (Sharni Vinson) is a grad student headed for a weekend excursion. Unlike most weekend excursions in these movies, which usually involve a lot of sex and underage drinking at a cabin in the woods, it's a bit more intimidating:  meeting her fiancée’s family for the first time.

Tensions are high, as her fiancée is her former professor and his family already knows that their relationship, is rather, unprofessional. Ti West, whose presence seems to signal a decent new endeavor in the horror genre, as he is one of the young new directing talents to watch, makes a brief cameo as a struggling filmmaker, before he is suddenly executed by one of the masked intruders. The family, which hasn't gotten together in some time, falls into old tensions and arguing, before they have a new and very real problem.

It is well until the middle of the film that we actually see the killers directly, even before we are directly staring into their face, hidden behind animal masks. Before any murders take place, we have the sense that this family is being watched. What was particularly unnerving was the kitchen, where the killers study the nightly routines of their quarry, their lamb-face masks reflecting against the glare of the glass, almost ghostly and foreboding before they actually do anything. Until the middle of the movie, they speak no words, only writing, “You're Next,” on the wall in their victim's blood.

Some people have criticized the movie for having a thin plotline, which is true, but in the realm of horror, this is not particularly a bad thing. Horror films are about isolation and containment, being confronted with an impending doom or terror that is nearly impossible to escape, and very little happens outside of the confines of this one house, to which these murderers think of everything by blocking cell phone service.

Rather, this is an experience – the killer's motives we don't really know, because in a situation of a home invasion, all you're thinking about is how to get help, not why these people are after you. The last thing you want is an intruder cloaked in black, hiding beneath your bed, and here we are only limited to what our protagonists can see. Just make sure no one's staring back at you through your own windows. Madness is unfolding, and there's no rest or refuge. A break-in shatters your last sense of security, but what if these people were really planning to hurt you, and you specifically? I think what you would do best is find a good house guest like Erin...

I suppose I am within the slim minority of people who didn't particularly enjoy Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, which I thought was largely an exercise in midnight B-movie indulgence and hipster dialogue, and for a slasher film, a rather unusual absence of gore – and the one implied sex scene cut from its theatrical release as a missing reel, although I must concede that QT did redeem his reputation fairly well with the newest Django release.

Nor did I care much for I Spit on Your Grave (either version), but I must concur that Erin (and not any female character from any of the three films I just mentioned) may be the one who redefines women of the slasher genre.

Rather than playing the part of the babysitter who phones the police in a panic about those calls coming from inside the house, or who wakes up to find herself part of some strange Satanic sacrifice, she's the one who brings about retribution to these killers, and this is revenge so swift and brutal that the lamb masks they wear become even more appropriate. 

In effect, Erin becomes to horror what Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise was to sci-fi. She grew up a survivalist in the Outback, it is implied in her backstory, the daughter of people who feared the world would one day go mad. How horrifying it would be then, to have the fears of your childhood be proven right. 

Other Stories by James Sullivan
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