The primitive nature of the story (a family reunion is interrupted by a group of mask-wearing psychopaths) gives the filmmakers many more opportunities to explore each character's nuances and personalities, instead of lazily allowing them to be another group of stock slasher victims. There isn't a single stereotypical character in the whole bunch, and that gives the violence and death more of an impact emotionally, rather than the giddy joy you get from seeing someone in a Friday the 13th film get splattered.
Since the story is a fairly non-complicated one, this is an experience that depends on how the story is told. That's what really makes You're Next a special treat. The pacing and building of tension is expertly handled by editor/director Adam Wingard, and if it weren't for those pesky cell phones (the bane of horror filmmakers ever since their creation), You're Next would look and feel incredibly timeless. Longevity is an important factor in the horror genre, and You're Next does a lot of things right when it comes to avoiding dating itself. The location, the look of the characters and the methods employed by the attackers could fit just as well in an 80's or 70's setting. This extends You're Next's rewatchability by a significant amount.
I have to give an ample amount of space to gush about the actors in this film, because they are almost uniformly perfect and are the strongest aspect of what makes You're Next work like gangbusters. Barbara Crampton (she of infamous Re-Animator fame) is not only looking excellent, but proves that she is no one-trick pony. The opening bits of the film establish her with an incredibly understated performance and it was a real pleasure seeing her on the big screen for the first time. I'm sure others are praising Sharni Vinson's performance as Erin, the heroine of the picture, and they should continue to do so. Her character is worthy of an Ellen Ripley trophy when it comes to female badassery. What also bolsters her character is not only is she tough, but more importantly, she's smart. The tactics she uses (setting traps obviously, but my favorite was when she was being chased through the basement and smashed all the light bulbs along the way) show that she's not just some butch brawler, but a calculating strategist. And the fact that she gets beat to hell throughout the film and never loses her alluring femininity is a triumph in of itself. AJ Bowen is lovable and sweet as Erin's boyfriend/former teacher Crispian, but not sappy or overtly romantic. Joe Swanberg is dynamite as the dickish suck-up brother, Drake. He gets a good amount of black comedic relief but grounds it all in a sense of reality that stops him from even verging on something cartoonish. The other noteworthy mention has to go to Wendy Glenn as the weirdo girlfriend Zee. She gets the most uproarious bit in the entire film, and while it made the rest of my fellow movie-goers cringe, I couldn't help but bust out laughing.
And that's another solid piece of You're Next's framework: humor. Horror/comedy efforts often lean a little too much towards the comedy genre, but You're Next keeps its feet planted firmly in its horror roots and just reaches up every once in a while to pick some comedic fruit. The humor always comes from a place of reality (with the wonderfully bizarre exception of Zee's bit I mentioned) and that gives the situations some levity without yanking you out of the menace the film has created. It's an astounding feat that only a special combination of sharp writing (courtesy of screenwriter Simon Barrett) and clever delivery can achieve.
There's one other thing I really, really liked about You're Next but I feel like if I talk about it, even in a dodgy way, it could spoil some of the fun for those who haven't seen the movie. I won't come right out and say what it is, but if you're smart enough (which I'm certain you are. Only smart people read my reviews) you could probably figure out what I'm getting at. So, I'll blank out the next section for those who wish to remain as pure as possible. Just highlight if you'd like to read:
Although the story seems pretty straightforward, as things start to reveal themselves, the plot of the movie turns into something that, if previously revealed to the audience via marketing, would probably be billed as the more mass-appealing "thriller/suspense" genre than outright "horror." That's a shame, because once the motivations of the attackers are made clear, it actually gives You're Next a more unique flavor than most of its peers. It's obvious that the filmmakers love the horror genre and want to use the tropes of the slasher film to tell the story that they want, and the practicality of the revealed motive actually makes the movie extremely believable and all that more terrifying. There are also later revelations that not only complicate the story's perceived simplicity, but also add more weight and shock to everything that has come before, without feeling twisty or contrived. It's a great storytelling choice and only helps separate You're Next from lesser contemporary horror films even more.
All the hype and fervor surrounding You're Next made me expect something monumental and game-changing. It's neither of those things, but that's completely fine, because You're Next is still tightly focused, masterfully composed, fantastically acted and manages to speak in its own unique voice. I guess when a genre goes through a big dry spell, something that is great can seem like a masterpiece. You're Next is unquestionably great and shows nothing but promise for all those involved with it. It's extremely likely that the makers of You're Next will go on to make a true horror masterpiece. For now, I'm more than happy to take what we've been given and enjoy the hell out of it.