“Grab anything that might make a good weapon.” – Erin
This movie review contains spoilers! If you haven’t seen this movie, do not read on! Or maybe you don’t care and you’re like me and some movies sound too scary and graphic but you want to know what happens anyway because while you’re chicken you’re not that chicken. If that’s the case, read on!
I want to discuss something that is the source of endless frustration in a lot of horror movies—stupid characters. You know the ones, existing purely to drive the plot.
A dark, intimidating figure has been stalking you and your friends. You find yourself home alone and hear the sound of footsteps on the second floor. Should you go investigate? No! Do you?
Yes, and now you’re dead.
Or, you’re supposedly a super-smart biologist who has traveled across the universe to a barren planet in search of alien life. The first living creature you encounter looks like the offspring of an earthworm and a cobra. Should you try to touch it? Hell no! Do you?
Yes, and now you’re dead.
Now, I’ll be honest. I have a love-hate relationship with slasher movies for two reasons. First, some characters in these movies act in such idiotic ways; clearly, I would never die in such a stupid, keep-the-plot-moving kind of way. That’s what I tell myself, and I take solace in the belief that I could keep it together enough to call the cops and run away. It’s entertaining and self-affirming to say, yep, at least I’m not that dumb.
The second reason, however, isn’t really fun, but it’s valuable and compelling. It targets the insecurities I’d rather not acknowledge.
In slasher movies, there’s always at least one character who doesn’t act stupidly but still meets a horrific end. Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe the stupid character didn’t fill the car with gas and she couldn’t escape. Maybe the killer was just that much smarter and stronger than she was. In short, this character just wasn’t good enough to make it out alive.
That’s what makes me squirm. I like to pretend I would know what to do and could protect myself in such a situation, and I probably could in some instances. Freaky-looking worm-cobra alien slithers towards me? Run away! Don’t touch it! Masked murderer has broken into the house and I’m in the middle of nowhere without a car or cell service? Crap, this might turn ugly.
I could be next.
Which brings me to the movie.
A few weeks ago, I watched You’re Next, a slasher and home invasion movie. Basically, a well-to-do family expects to spend a nice weekend together at its isolated vacation mansion in the middle of nowhere, only to have those plans dashed when three masked murders show up to terrorize everyone. Little do those masked psychos know that things won’t go as planned.
What I really liked about this movie is that it took time to properly introduce the characters. The family consists of mother Aubrey and father Paul, and their four adult children: Drake, Crispian, Felix, and Aimee. The children’s assorted significant others have also been invited for the weekend. The main character is Erin, a super cute Australian woman who is dating Crispian.
Through her eyes we learn how the family works. A family portrait hung on the wall shows her the kind of family dynamic the characters deal with—cold, distant, resentful, and ultimately content to gloss over the tensions that threateni to boil over. “Dysfunction, Contempt, and Repressed Anger,” should be the family’s moto. But still, instead of stock characters, the family members feel like real people. They’re mostly normal. They have jobs and hobbies and insecurities they overcompensate for. You see the rolling of eyes and you hear the snide remarks. The family is barely keeping it together for the sake of the guests. Every scene includes a backhanded compliment or a direct attack. Body language communicates volumes. Crispian helpfully explains to Erin just how messed up the family dynamics are, half-joking that they won’t have enough alcohol to get through the weekend.
At its heart, though, this story is about normal people who only ever expected to spend an uncomfortable weekend with family. This is what happens, at first—everything is fine and dandy, in an underhanded and passive-aggressive way. But things come to a head during a very tense dinner that devolves into a nasty fight, complete with the significant others looking on awkwardly. Then the killers crash the fun, several people get shot with crossbows, and everything goes to Hell in a handbasket. It’s terrifying.
That’s when we learn that Erin is a total badass. While the others are freaking out (who wouldn’t? A crossbow? What, a gun was too subtle?), Erin gets everyone out of the dining room and barks orders to organize their defenses. It’s amazing and gratifying to see her handle herself without tears or screams. She continually demonstrates her skill and quick thinking, not only protecting herself but kicking so much home-invader ass that they become scared of her. And she’s not a superhero—Erin had a doomsday prepper for a father and grew up on a survivalist compound. So, yeah, she’s just really intelligent, well trained, and extremely capable of fighting back. She’s scared but knows how to harness her fear and adrenaline. It’s a nice deconstruction of the Final Girl Archetype.
Erin is the only one who can stay on top of the situation. The rest of the characters lack Erin’s knowledge and the confidence that her training affords her. And that doesn’t begin to address the emotional dangers facing the family. Felix and Crispian, having orchestrated the whole thing in order to inherit their parent’s vast wealth, use their intimate knowledge of the family dynamics to devastating effect. They know what buttons to push in order to manipulate their parents and siblings, separating them from the group and making vulnerable to attack. As family members die, the gravity of the situation takes its toil on the other members, which clouds their judgment and makes them vulnerable. They don’t know how to handle the horrific unfolding of events. They’ve never had to do that before. The combination of lack of competence and unstable emotional states proves fatal for the majority of the characters.
The movie has led me to question the degree of control I possess over my fear and emotions, especially where it concerns instances where I would need control. Some people I know would do just fine—cops or ex-military would probably do just fine, thanks to years of training to handle dangerous conditions. I do not have this kind of training. I know some basic self-defense and I can handle a gun, but never in my life have I had to perform under the stress of a home invasion, let alone one where the assailants are well armed and extremely organized.
And what if my family was involved as well? That’s a whole other ball of wax, even if you do have training. I would probably not act in my own interests, which could be selfless or stupid, depending on what the outcome is. Or worse, maybe I would be overcome by fear and desert my family in favor of self-preservation. Maybe the smart move, but also morally reprehensible. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s much easier to see when I’m not covered in blood and there aren’t people trying to kill me. It’s much easier to sit in the comfort of my safe living room and judge the actions of others, with full command of my faculties.
And what about real life horror, when I hear of people being attacked, maybe I should ask myself, is really right to judge the victim for not fighting back? Would I have the presence of mind to do that? Would fighting back have been wise? And when I hear of people who did fight back successfully, maybe I should be way more impressed.
This is the thought that roots me in my seat as I watch the movie through my fingers. This is why I’ll watch those movies even though home invasions are one of my top three nightmares. I don’t know how I’ll react. I don’t know what will happen to me. When I admit that to myself, I have to wonder if those “stupid” characters were really stupid or if they simply couldn’t overcome the situation. Could you?