On DVD: Agatha Christie’s Straw Lions in Winter — “You’re Next”

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Let’s say you’re in a horror movie. You’re one of the villains, and you’re planning a home invasion. There’s a kink in the plans, however. You’ve just discovered the family you intend to terrorize has invited to dinner the toughest opponent in all of movie history: an Australian.

You’ve seen Mel Gibson in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, right? Not to mention every iteration of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine…

As a movie villain, you really ought to have the sense to go home, reheat some leftovers, watch your favorite episode of Golden Girls and call it a night, thankful you’ve just avoided what could have been a catastrophe.

It’s good for us that movie villains are rarely this smart. In the case of You’re Next, three murderers wearing animal masks seem to be going home to home for the sake of causing random violence.

We’ve seen this plot before, from Panic Room to Funny Games. The genre even has an unnerving description: home invasion. You’re Next is smart enough to throw several wrenches into the works, however.

It starts with a nail biting opening scene reminiscent of Scream, but it doesn’t linger here. Instead, we get a prolonged introduction to the characters about to be terrorized – the wealthy, dysfunctional, Davison family. There’s favorite son Drake, who never has to work for his father’s approval and uses this as an opportunity to bully his brother Crispian, who can’t do anything right. Another son, Felix, misbehaves while only daughter Aimee is doted on by her mother. They all bring dates, giving us enough characters to be picked off over the course of the film.

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While the setup harkens back to Agatha Christie thrillers, the key to the home invasion flick is that one seemingly weak character takes charge and fights back. Dustin Hoffman set a bar that’s yet to be topped in the original Straw Dogs by transforming from a brittle mathematician into an unrelenting savage. Here, it’s Crispian’s date, his Australian teaching assistant Erin, who slips into survivalist mode like its a warm blanket, expertly wielding a meat tenderizer and setting up hiding places and traps that would make MacGyver proud.

Of course, no one bothers listening to her. It’s the men who feel they know what should happen, even if they have no experience to fall back on. It takes a few of them getting knocked out or running away for Erin to finally get everyone on board, but by then the movie’s delivered a big, beautiful, downright Shakespearian twist that makes you realize she’s the only one left whose life is really at risk.

You’re Next also excels at dark comedy. Even as crossbow bolts rain through the windows, Drake and Crispian bicker about who can run to the car fastest and which of them is too husky. Later, as one character is pursued by the rest of the cast, instead of following the chase scene, the shot politely waits for the villain with an injured leg to hobble after the rest. It’s a testament to director Adam Wingard that the humor only helps to ratchet up the tension.

As Erin, Sharni Vinson joins the Evil Dead remake’s Jane Levy as women who last year far exceeded what’s expected of actresses in slasher films. Vinson is the film’s anchor, giving us a character who seems realistically terrified and yet still trained enough to move into action. If GK Films relaunches Tomb Raider with a younger, grittier heroine, Vinson may have just given the best audition to be their Angelina Jolie-replacement.

You’re Next is an oddity, a tense horror film with a wry sense of humor. I’m shocked that it’s on my shortlist for film of the year, which means it’s truly one of the best recent American horror films. You’re Next is rated R for violence, as well as language and brief nudity.

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