Director Adam Wingard has received rave reviews for his home-invasion horror comedy You’re Next (rated R, out Aug. 23), but his gore-drenched sensibility — and twisted sense of humor — is not everyone’s cup of Darjeeling. In the spring of 2007, for instance, Wingard appeared in the premiere of Fox’s On the Lot, a Steven Spielberg-produced reality show depicting aspiring filmmakers in competition. As Wingard recalls, he was immediately put off by the vibe on the televised contest and decided to self-sabotage. So in an unaired segment, he pitched a movie about a giant, skinless, suburbia-terrorizing dog named Roger to the show’s three judges: Brett Ratner, Carrie Fisher, and Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall. ”I kept emphasizing how violent the film needed to be, and I was doing a dance as I was pitching,” says Wingard, who, it is probably worth noting, stands 6 feet 4 inches tall. ”I was shocked they didn’t use it on the show. It was gold!” Needless to say, Wingard did not progress to the next round. ”I don’t remember what the judges said,” he says, laughing, ”but I think they were really disappointed in me.”
Wingard’s deliberate failure to make the On the Lot cut did not stop him from making films. Over the past decade, the Alabama-raised 30-year-old has directed or codirected nine features, including 2011’s serial-killer thriller A Horrible Way to Die. And despite a lack of big-name actors — the best known is probably Step Up 3D star Sharni Vinson — You’re Next seems poised to gross more than all his previous projects combined. Since the film’s debut at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, where Lionsgate snapped up distribution rights, horror fans have been buzzing about this tale of a family reunion that is brutally interrupted by animal-mask-wearing maniacs. At last month’s Comic-Con, You’re Next received an unexpected PR boost when Michael Fassbender appeared at the panel for X-Men: Days of Future Past wearing one of the replica masks distributed at the event. Most encouragingly, after years of horror reboots and sequels, filmgoers are readily embracing more original fare, like this summer’s sleeper hits The Conjuring and The Purge (which also centers on a deadly home invasion by masked baddies).
And You’re Next is certainly original. Although Wingard and writer Simon Barrett were influenced by Wes Craven’s 1996 horror lampoon Scream, the pair have taken a more subtle approach humor-wise, establishing an array of believable characters and then clobbering them with all the gruesome tropes of a terror flick. ”What’s become more and more interesting to a lot of us,” says Amy Seimetz, who plays the desperate-to-please-Daddy middle child, ”is this new form of horror, or thriller, that’s straddling a line between naturalism and pulp.”
Naturalism in a horror film may seem like a stretch, but not when you consider that much of the cast and crew of You’re Next is drawn from a group of highly collaborative directors and actors whose low-budget, understated movies have been described as ”mumblecore” — or ”mumblegore” on those occasions when they venture into horror territory. Wingard and Barrett even cast other indie filmmakers in key roles, including Ti West (The House of the Devil), Calvin Reeder (The Oregonian), and the prolific Joe Swanberg (whose latest film, Drinking Buddies, will also open Aug. 23). Swanberg plays a particularly dickish family member who grills West’s character, an indie-film director, about his ”underground” movies. ”That’s one of the moments in the film where the actors did a lot of improvisation,” says Barrett. ”It’s so funny, because the way Joe is asking Ti those questions, he is 100 percent doing an impression of real conversations he’s had with relatives about his own movies.”
You’re Next is no mumblecore chatfest, however. Wingard’s film is extremely violent at times and kicks off with a particularly terrifying attack on characters played by Kate Lyn Sheil and yet another indie director, Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter), who has served as something of a mentor to the mumblegore gang. ”I had to be brutalized at the throat by a very nice stuntman,” recalls Fessenden of shooting his scene. ”Nevertheless, we did it at least 45 times and my Adam’s apple hurt. In fact, I wanted to retitle the film Your Necks.”
The mayhem in You’re Next has proved a tad too extreme for some moviegoers. ”A friend of mine saw it at South by Southwest and had to walk out,” says Vinson, who took the extreme reaction as a badge of honor. ”I was in shock because this person is an actor himself, so he knows all the tricks of the trade. I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s awesome!”’ Garry Marshall, you’ve been warned.