Making a horror movie must be a little like writing a sonnet. The form is so familiar that even non-fans have been exposed to a lot of them. The (relative) simplicity of the form in conjunction with that exposure makes it attractive to creators: I can do that! It also makes it a challenge for creators and consumers alike: We’ve seen that!
Moaning about the conventionality of conventions is a classic sign that the critic is not a fan of the genre. You rarely hear readers lamenting the repetitiveness of the form when they are reading a sonnet by Shakespeare. So my first comment outs me then as a non-horror fan. Guilty as charged. The fan will see the same conventionality as the critic but describe it with positive language–the film is “classic,” “retro,” “old-school,” or “an homage.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that if you are a horror fan you probably don’t need me to tell you why my preferred genres are better than yours or hear me scold you for your entertainment preferences. The most important thing I can probably tell you is that the horror fans at my screening seemed to like You’re Next just fine. Creepy, John Carpenteresque music? Check. Likable heroine? Check? New ways of killing people that allow for kill shots that dare you to look but stay within the “R” rating? Check and mate.
If you are still reading, I can only assume you are not only interested in whether or not this is an above-average horror film (yes), but why I still pretty much don’t care for it. I’ll do my best. I care about content as much as form. I know that makes me a bit of an outlier in some film conversations, where the image is all and the aesthetic contemplation of it stands in for narrative complexity or thematic relevance. I tend to think if all the talk about an art work–or even most it–centers around technique, that is often a sign that the film itself isn’t saying much worth thinking about, that it is there to be consumed rather than analyzed. Consumption for entertainment purposes only–the pleasure of the moment–is not prima facie bad, especially if that is the level at which the film is pitched. Like many good (I use the term loosely) horror films, You’re Next is not at all pretentious about what it is doing. It makes no claims at high art, only at entertainment. I just don’t find people getting hacked, garroted, or blendered to death to be particularly entertaining.
The lack of interest in the pure aesthetics of sadism leaves a narrow but still present sliver of features that make horror at least palatable to me in some instances. If the hero or heroine has to exercise some virtue to escape harm such as intelligence or quick-thinking, that’s usually a plus. There are whiffs of that in You’re Next. Courage is good and helps you survive longer than those who simply fall to pieces. But at the end of the day, it’s more about luck and chance. Even the coolest heads wouldn’t prevail if there didn’t happen to be a convenient weapon handy at just the right moment or the intercession of another person at another key point. Perhaps that’s realistic, but it does end up depressing me rather than exhilarating me. One of the most maddening conventions of horror is the cynical attempts to fool the audience into thinking that certain characters are going to make it only to cut them down within inches of the finish line. This actually engenders frustration in me rather than fear. Thematically, those “gotcha” moments individually–but even more so corporately–end up saying survival is all just one impossible accumulation of lucky guesses so why even try?
I guess that’s my biggest complaint about You’re Next as a representative of its genre. Once you get past the initial adrenaline rush, rather than making you happy you’re alive, it makes you miserable about the pointlessness of our solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives.