Wednesday, June 25, 2014

ESSAY: No, YOU'RE Next: The Transformation of a Home Invasion Thriller

Abstract: A consideration of the possible influence one little-known home invasion thriller had on another, much more well-regarded home invasion thriller. A nasty case of plagiarism? Well, we wouldn't be shocked if the makers of the latter had caught a late night television broadcast of the former at some point. Regardless, this isn't a case of outright thievery; it's a demonstration of how a thriller film becomes a horror film, and of the fine line separating cliched earnestness and intentional self-parody in cinematic storytelling.

This essay features discussion of:
You're Next (2013) dir. Adam Wingard
Below Utopia (1997) dir. Kurt Voss

Allow me to describe for you a horror film. Help me to remember its title.

It goes like this: A young couple is driving to a family get-together. The man (a college English teacher) is anxious because his relationship with his wealthy family (though particularly his father) is strained due to their perception of him as a failure. The woman--the man's significant other--is also anxious, considering this will be her first encounter with his family. The couple arrives at this isolated family estate in the countryside, and many tense encounters are had between siblings and between children and parents. During dinner, a trio of ferocious mercenaries invade the home and murder most everyone inside. The young couple survive by evading the killers, and, eventually, they're able to turn the tables on their aggressors by way of borrowed weapons. In particular, the woman demonstrates her physical and emotional resilience to the terror surrounding her in this second half. 

The killers successfully done away with, a twist is tossed our way like a live hand grenade: the male half of this couple staged the whole grisly affair. See, he hired the anonymous assassins to murder his entire, much-maligned family so that he would be the sole recipient of their vast estate. (It appears that being an English teacher simply wasn't paying the bills.) He then decided to put his girlfriend through this harrowing ordeal so that she could serve as an innocent witness to the authorities concerning the senseless carnage and, thus, discourage any suspicion that might turn in his direction. But, now that she has learned the truth of her boyfriend's nefarious scheming and mass familicide, she has no recourse but to murder him in retaliation, which she does.

What movie am I thinking of?

You might be thinking that I'm thinking of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's recent home invasion horror film You're Next (2013). Actually, I was describing the film Below Utopia (a.k.a. Body Count, 1997), starring Alyssa Milano, Justin Theroux, Tiny Lister, and the incomparable Ice T. But you wouldn't be wrong, either, because what I've described above is the same basic story (and accompanying minute details) seen in You're Next. The two films are identical in this broad sense, separated only by their respective decades of release and the fact that if you're reading this blog you've most likely seen the one and never even heard of the other.

I'm hesitant to label the similarities between Below Utopia and You're Next as the product of an act of deliberate plagiarism by the latter against the former. Kurt Voss's Below Utopia isn't exactly startling in its originality, and it's possible that writer Simon Barrett was simply working from the cliches of the twisty, surprisingly long-lived inheritance scheme thriller genre when he was drafting You're Next, resulting in a film the travels the same well-trodden path. But I have a tough time swallowing that line. The two films are much too much alike for the resemblance to be mere coincidence, and I would wager that Barrett was influenced at least unconsciously by the earlier film, if not directly. Either way, I have no doubt that Barrett had seen Below Utopia prior to writing his film. This isn't a criticism. I'm equally as certain that Barrett and Wingard had seen The Strangers (2008), Funny Games (1997; 2008), High Tension (2003), Them (2006), Inside (2007), and numerous other contemporary home invasion thrillers before writing You're Next, too. In its postmodern self-awareness, Barrett and Wingard's film is striving to upset the expectations of its specific subgenre, and thus it requires a resemblance to (and familiarity with) those prior films within that subgenre. It's to be expected.

The complicating factor in all this is that Below Utopia isn't a horror film, despite the fact that the majority of home invasion films are. It's a thriller, certainly, perhaps a crime or a drama film, but it's not horror. Almost all of its violence happens off screen, with the emphasis being not on forcing the audience to gawk at the visceral images of a family being demolished but on encouraging that audience to follow the loopy plot twists and stay ahead of the action. The film's antagonists aren't shadowy, menacing madmen, but Tiny Lister checking the radio for basketball scores and Ice T cracking wise between gunshots. It's shot and edited in a flat, suspense-bereft late-'90s DTV style (despite it having received a theatrical release), and while you might run the risk of being absentmindedly entertained by the events on screen, being afraid seems unlikely.

You're Next transforms the same basic story into something that could not be mistaken for anything but a horror film. The film intends to shock, terrify, and amusingly astonish by the lengths to which it goes in sowing its mayhem. Frenetic handheld camerawork, palpable tension punctuated by cheap jump scares, iconic villains, unflinching brutality leavened by audience-rousing reprisals, buckets upon buckets of fake blood: it's all the things midnight movies are made of. Considering its foundational commonalities with the earlier film, You're Next is best viewed as a revision of Below Utopia, seeking to amend the errors of the "original" film's presentation. In a commentary track on You're Next's home video release, Barrett expresses that his desire in writing the film was to correct what bad home invasion movies got wrong. That it does. Despite its novel twists and turns (which You're Next co-opts as its own), Below Utopia is as typical as they come, with audible DUN-DUN-DUNs soundtracking its revelations and strained grasps at psychological complexity. Nevertheless, Below Utopia still presents the horrific concept of a man callously ordering the deaths of his entire immediate and extended family. Does not such a horrific concept deserve the casing of a horror film that You're Next provides?

But You're Next has value beyond this transformation of genre, whatever the truth is concerning its source. In that same commentary track, Barrett and Wingard agree that what is necessary in contemporary horror cinema is not necessarily new material, but new perspectives on that material. You're Next is better classified as an upheaval than a new perspective. Despite their claim that the film contains no overt "postmodern winks," Barrett and Wingard approach You're Next as self parody. The film lulls us into a sense of familiarity by beginning like an earnest slasher film and playing up narrative cliches like the motiveless thrill-killers and cinematic cliches like the sights and sounds of an unnaturally creaky old house. But it's not all that long before the film disregards our expectations and embraces the absurd, with blenders to the head and the apparent immortality of Joe Swanberg's character (another aspect mirrored, though without comment, in Below Utopia's similarly immortal brother character of Justin, as portrayed by Nicholas Walker). You're Next encourages its characters to blindly but knowingly play into genre cliches by splitting up and wandering into dark rooms despite the presence of murderous psychopaths and then milks these moments for dark humor. Simultaneously, the film creates characters and moments that subvert those cliches, like Final Girl Erin (Sharni Vinson), whose childhood training as a survivalist makes her beyond circumstantially resilient, in contrast to so many other horror movie heroines. In short, the film strives successfully to be as unpredictable as it is knowingly hackneyed.

This is because You're Next is pointing out the conventional flaws of films within the subgenres of the slasher and the home invasion thriller while self-consciously reveling in those flaws. To an extent, it's devaluing the earnestness of those other films and acknowledging how crudely fun they can be. It's a film that puts on lurid display its exhaustion with the cliche of horror narratives motivated by nothing but their villains' inherent sadistic evil (à la The Strangers) or hoary psychological derangement (à la Inside) by leading us towards those cliches and then making them vanish, much to our discovered elation. Like Scream (1996), which Barrett and Wingard strangely assure us their film is nothing like, You're Next allows us to feel smart for noticing its manipulation of conventions and its evacuation of faux-realism from a horror movie scenario that rests in absurdity.

Case in point: Below Utopia falls into the trap of faux-realism-through-cliche when it attempts to ground the reasoning for the by-proxy massacre in the sudden and inexplicable mania of Justin Theroux's previously sane character. It's amusing to watch Theroux ham it up as a secret psycho, but this attempted justification of the family massacre plot is far from a satisfying development, as it's trying too hard to explain away actions that are artificial and born of genre narrative necessity anyway. This phony realism, propped up by groan-worthy storytelling banalities, is the state to which so many home invasion thrillers fretfully strive. Why? Unlike most other horror subgenres, the home invasion thriller is constrained by its location. What could be more real or sacrosanct to us than our homes? It's for this reason that most audiences find the notion of home invasion skin-crawling, but it's also for this reason that filmmakers working within the subgenre actively forgo including levity or self-awareness in their productions in the interest of playing on those very real fears. Thus, home invasion thrillers are by and large dour, self-serious affairs, mired in their flimsy sense of authenticity, regardless of the level of preposterous genre fantasy they depict on screen. Like Below Utopia. (Or, for instance, Inside, in which the goopiest, goriest, stupidest blood fantasies are enacted without the trace of a smirk.)

In rebellion against this trend, You're Next embraces the artifice of its plot throughout, and pointedly (and humorously) recognizes the barbarity of its central inheritance scheme, with its mass familicide being ordered for no reason more complex than the accelerated transference of wealth between uber-greedy family members. Barrett and Wingard have re-structured their borrowed plot around the act of the wealthy swallowing up all those around them in the pursuit of more wealth, despite all good sense, placing these actions within a hysterical reality dictated by the logic (or illogic) of the conceit. What the filmmakers achieve is a state of genre filmmaking unadulterated by the restraints of verisimilitude that so many works of fantasy are hobbled with. They've taken a series of films set in its ways and liberated it for a receptive audience, but this insight is partially lost if it's never made clear to us what, specifically, they were taking to begin with, but for a chance encounter with it in the discount DVD bin. If the influence is there (which I suspect it is), it's frustrating that Barrett and Wingard have been so coy about it in the publicity surrounding the film. After all, it's sort of the point.


  1. I'm grateful for critics like you, Jeffrey. I'm a biased watcher, and I generally view newer, contemporary genre flicks with a rueful, distrusting glance. If it weren't for comprehensive, perceptive essays such as this, I might never have given fare like YOU'RE NEXT a shot. After reading this though, I was compelled to add it to my Netflix queue immediately. It was at the risk of having that plot point revealed, but I'd say it was worth it.

    On a tangential note, I'm reading Newman's NIGHTMARE MOVIES right now, and after reading your post it occurred to me that there doesn't seem to be too many--or even any, maybe--published books that serve as studies on modern terror. A lot of them seem to look back (which is of course perfectly fine), while others spread themselves along the entire timeline of the genre. Like an examination of purely millennial horrors; has that even been done yet?

    Maybe you should be the one to write it.

    1. I am flattered, sir, and happy that you both enjoyed the essay and gave a modern horror flick a chance. As my current blog series hopes to make apparent, there are a few exceptional contemporary films out there. Granted, it's a measly handful, but, hey, a handful!

      Sadly, I think the major hurdle in front of the prospect of me writing a book about the modern horror scene is just that: there are only a handful worth the effort. The reports of modern horror's death have been exaggerated, but perhaps not greatly.

      And anyway, I'm 98% sure that the great John Kenneth Muir is working on a HORROR FILMS OF THE 2000s book to complement the others in his series. I'm certain he can write about the decade with more affection than I could.