Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
The home invasion thriller is a stock mode of horror cinema, and one that has abbutted many other subgenres, from slasher (Alone in the Dark) to “serious drama” (Straw Dogs). We’ve seen home invasion movies where the true horror is a complete lack of context or motivation for the violence, ‘ala The Strangers or Funny Games, or films where the concept of home invasion is tied directly to sociopolitical themes (The Purge) or even holidays (Better Watch Out). It’s an inexhaustible and basic building block for horror and thrillers—the fear that even in your own home you’re not safe, and that constant vigilance is necessary to protect the ones you love. These films speak to our insecurities with our social stations, and the worry that everything could come tumbling down when we’re targeted by deranged aggressors or simply by the whims of an uncaring universe.
And when it’s not even your own house? Well, forget about it, right? You’re Next, the 2011 wide release debut of writer-director Adam Wingard, doesn’t even afford its heroine, Erin (Sharni Vinson) that advantage of familiar terrain—she’s a college student meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time in their country mansion when everything suddenly goes to hell. Not that the awkwardness of your potential stepmother being murdered slows her down, mind you—Erin quickly establishes herself as one of the most cooly capable fighters in the history of the genre, earning an impressive spot on our all-time list of final girls.
You’re Next, though made on a modest budget of $1 million, was a big step up for Wingard, who had risen from the mumblecore/mumblegore movement alongside contemporaries and frequent collaborators Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Simon Barrett and A.J. Bowen. Every one of them step onto the screen in You’re Next, which combines elements of the improvisational dialog found in those low-budget dramas with the tighter pacing and bloody kills of a vintage slasher film. The result is a fusion of dysfunctional family drama and bone-crunching horror actioner, with more genre icons (Larry Fessenden, Barbara Crampton!) than you can shake a stick at.
It’s Vinson, though, who immediately draws you into her corner, infusing Erin with first a relatable meekness that we quickly learn is a social construct meant to ingratiate her to the boyfriend’s family, and then a badass streak that immediately emerges when the situation escalates to life and death. As we wrote in the previously referenced ranking of horror movie final girls:
Erin is just a girl trying to live a normal life after what sounds like a very strict, off-the-grid childhood, growing up in a survivalist compound in the Australian Outback where she was apparently taught a robust suite of combat skills. So when masked killers start picking off members of her boyfriend’s family, Erin’s childhood instincts kick in, and she becomes an engine of destruction. And when I say destruction, I mean she tears through anyone standing in her way with any weapon at her disposal. She’s dispatching men with meat tenderizes, blenders and anything else within reach, while simultaneously laying booby traps like a deadly version of Kevin McCallister. At the same time, she has to apply her intelligence to figure out why all of these attacks are happening, and which members of the family may be involved in the terrible things happening to her. She’s an extremely self-sufficient character who is calm under pressure and is ready for anything. She clearly never wanted to use these types of skills again, but when you put her back to the wall, Erin will cave in your skull and not think twice about it.
And that’s the joy of You’re Next—watching a character you’re meant to underestimate emerge as a frighteningly capable avenger, dishing out well-deserved brutality. The violence is shot at a well-pitched midpoint between brutally realistic and comically exaggerated, building steadily toward a conclusion that reaches Peter Jackson-like gratuitousness (the best kind) in terms of bloodshed. It’s a fitting capper to a very bad day for our girl Erin.
It’s interesting, almost a decade later, to look back at You’re Next and note the career trajectories of so many of its performers both in front of and behind the camera, most of whom have subsequently branched out to diversify their careers beyond the niche of horror. Wingard has risen slowly through the Hollywood ranks, directing for Netflix (Death Note) and continues to prepare his shot at the big-budget bigtime in the form of Godzilla vs. Kong. Ti West directed a score of well-regarded horror films before branching out into TV direction in the last few years. Joe Swanberg kept himself more in the arena of drama, and has scarcely been without two concurrent projects since. Simon Barrett wrote more horror films, including segments in each of the V/H/S anthologies, and will soon be making his feature directorial debut in a horror flick called Seance. Few indie flicks made for $1 million have, in retrospect, contained such a prolific stable of writers, directors and performers, in terms of the collective output they would go on to produce. In that sense, You’re Next was like the incubator for dozens of notable films (horror and otherwise) to come.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.