Movies

'You're Next' upends the horror genre

Anyone traveling around Los Angeles recently has likely noticed the menacing imagery of men in paramilitary garb with their faces covered by spooky animal masks. They appeared for a time as ghostly figures overlaid on posters for other movies, though they have recently been seen more clearly in ads all their own for the new horror-thriller "You're Next."

Referred to in the credits as Lamb Mask, Tiger Mask and Fox Mask, the characters are the main villains of much of the film. They invade the reunion of a wealthy family at a remote country estate seemingly at random, charging through the windows with crossbows and machetes.

The film is a bold step forward for the collaborative team of director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett.

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"You're Next" had a rollicking world premiere in 2011 as part of the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival that had the audience on its feet cheering during the screening.

That first showing has become part of the film's lore, a signal of its effect on audiences. It opens Aug. 23 around the U.S.

"We came to realize that the best way to deconstruct horror nowadays is actually just to make a really great horror movie," Wingard, 30, said recently in East Hollywood, not far from where he and Barrett live on the same block. "You don't have to sell the reference thing or be that clever. Recognizing all the horror tropes and playing off audience expectations is kind of the new deconstruction."

Though the film is full of spiky scares and elaborate bloody kills, it is also driven by a sharp wit, with repeated use of the Dwight Twilley Band's power-pop chestnut "Looking for the Magic" that's both funny and chilling.

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"We went into the recesses of our minds and said, 'What got us into filmmaking?'" noted Wingard. "And we realized it's fun, action-y horror stuff geared toward having a good time."

The cast is not a typical low-budget assemblage of anonymous faces, but is instead full of indie filmmakers and stalwart actors, including Larry Fessenden, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Calvin Reeder, AJ Bowen, Kate Lyn Sheil and Amy Seimetz. The family matriarch is played by Barbara Crampton, a revered horror actress best known for 1985's "Re-Animator."

"A lot of studio films seem to assume that horror audiences aren't very bright," said Barrett, 34, who also plays one of the masked marauders.

"We are the horror audience, we see everything

we can, and we are consistently insulted by how bad they are. So we knew we wanted to do something that still entertained on a broader level but didn't fall into any of these familiar pitfalls of clichés that everyone is sick of and anticipates anyway."

The pair met when Barrett was shooting the 2004 movie "Dead Birds" in Alabama, Wingard's home state, and Wingard tagged along with a friend on a set visit.

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They collaborated on the 2010 serial killer-romantic drama "A Horrible Way to Die" and have also been involved in the anthology films "V/H/S" and "V/H/S/2."

Lionsgate acquired "You're Next" off the strength of its appearance in Toronto but then merged with Summit Entertainment. Those combined entities, with the "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" franchises between them, suddenly had a release schedule brimming with films. So "You're Next" would have to wait.

Producer Keith Calder was also involved with the 2006 film "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane," which has seen its distribution rights change hands numerous times and is unreleased in the U.S. (That film is scheduled to finally come out this fall.) Since the 2011 screenings in Toronto and at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, anticipation has been high among genre fans for the release of "You're Next," with the delay only stoking excitement.

"There was definitely a moment or two where I thought, 'Is this going to be "Mandy Lane" all over again?'" said Calder. "The reasoning for how the delay happened was so different. In the 'You're Next' case, it really was these two large independent companies merged and had too many movies."

Among the many horror tropes "You're Next" grapples with is the notion of the "Final Girl," as characters are picked off one by one and a single female character is left behind.

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In "You're Next," the idea is flipped on its head with the character of Erin, the new girlfriend of one of the family members.

When things take a turn for the worse, Erin reveals herself as someone capable of handling even the most extreme situation. The character's no-nonsense approach to danger is something the filmmakers and cast point to with pride.

"She doesn't run up the stairs when she should be running out the door," actress Sharni Vinson said. The role was originally conceived as an American, but the character was rewritten so the Australian-born Vinson could play the role with her own accent.

For all involved, "You're Next" is a step up in ambition and scale. The film was made for less than $1 million, but Lionsgate is treating it as a major release, opening it on more than 2,400 screens.

"The intent going into it was, can we make a commercial film that mainstream audiences can understand and get behind. That was the real challenge," Wingard said.

"You have to play by certain rules and pull that off. You can't skip anything. You have to fill in all the blanks."

"It's a tricky thing to do," Calder said of the film's ambitions to satisfy hard-core genre fans and more general audiences alike. "And it's something Simon is very good at conceiving and Adam is very good at getting to work. It will satisfy your basic horror movie requirements."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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