There’s no place like home, especially when it comes to domestic violence, random atrocities, and atavistic, unnamable evil. Such has been the case in a few recent successful, low-budget genre films. In “The Purge,” set in a future dystopia in which a special day has been established for citizens to commit random crimes with impunity, the safest residence on the block proves no defense against jealous neighbors. In “The Conjuring,” a small family’s dream house turns into a nightmare because of malignant spirits. Like those two films, Adam Wingard’s sly, diabolical, and oddly moral “You’re Next” draws on the home invasion/haunted house scenario, but outclasses them with its wit, irony, and technically proficient terror.
At the Davisons’ ramshackle country house, the family gathers to celebrate the 35th wedding anniversary of retired millionaire Paul (Rob Moran) and his neurotic wife, Aubrey (Barbara Crampton). Guests include their boorish eldest son Drake (filmmaker Joe Swanberg) and his icy wife, Kelly (Margaret Laney); the middle son Crispian (AJ Bowen), a wimpy professor, and his girlfriend and former student Erin (Sharni Vinson); the youngest son Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his eye-rolling Goth companion Zee (Wendy Glenn); and the daughter, pampered Aimee (Amy Seimetz), with her filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (filmmaker Ti West). The petty vendettas, resentments, jealousies, and treachery pour out soon after grace is said at a dinner. It’s like Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” (1998), but, as becomes clear when the first guest gets it between the eyes, with a higher body count.
Not that the violence is unexpected, as the film opens with a prologue in which the Davisons’ neighbors meet with a similar grisly fate at the hands of a masked psychopath. One of the victims in that scene had just put on a CD set for “repeat play” before the fatal encounter, and for a while the rest of the film itself becomes a repeat play of gruesome deaths, with the only suspense being in what order the guest list will be shortened.
And with a couple significant exceptions, those on the list don’t warrant much consideration, being variations on the same selfish, shallow, entitled cipher. Neither does Wingard make much use of the setting — the house itself. Though he shows some inventiveness in utilizing the sharp objects in kitchen drawers, he doesn’t give the place much character — which it deserves, since it practically is one. So when one of the victims, still ambulatory despite an arrow in the back, mutters, “Why would someone do this?” the question seems, more or less, rhetorical.
Surprisingly, though, it does have an answer. And the growing resourcefulness of one of the guests also surprises, as with satisfying expertise and ruthlessness (including the best use of a blender since 1984’s “Gremlins”), this unwilling victim turns the tables on the perpetrators. Maybe. And so what started out as a sadistic experiment in the manner of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (1997 and 2007) evolves into a variation on Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971), though not as misogynistic. Nor as upbeat. In “You’re Next,” home is where the heart is, and it’s got a screwdriver sticking out of it.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.