If you attend a remote summer camp, you have to know there’s a non-zero chance that you’ll get stalked through the woods by a killer with a mask and a machete. If you cheat Death on a plane/the highway/a roller coaster, you can’t be surprised when it comes after you in your daily life in increasingly creative ways. If you pick up the phone when you’re home alone, you’re rolling the dice on whether the voice on the other side of the line wants you dead. Horror is filled with these (and other) scenarios that don’t exactly say that you’re asking for death and dismemberment, but you really should know better by now.
You Might Be the Killer, an entertaining horror-movie riff that began its life as a masterpiece in Twitter improv, engages with these horror tropes and a larger debate about free will: Should you find yourself running through a campground, splattered in blood, are you doomed to be added to the growing kill count by a slow-stalking, relentless killer? …Wait, you’re the one holding the machete and wearing the mask? Ohh, then we have a very different problem. Unfortunately, the answers this movie raises are less than satisfactory.
Chuck (Alyson Hannigan) is working a typical late-night shift at the Rings of Saturn comic book store when she gets a call from her buddy Sam (Fran Kranz) asking for help—not unlike author Sam Sykes’ opening salvo to fellow author Chuck Wendig on Twitter last year, which the latter met with a prime example of “yes, and.” See, Sam is head counselor at Camp Clear Vista, but the night before the kids are due to arrive, he and his fellow counselors are set upon by a silent stranger staring at them through soulless eyeholes in a creepy carved mask, who instead of speaking slashes them to death with a machete. A bloody Sam has hidden himself away in one of the cabins, but he and Chuck very quickly determine that what he thought was a baseball bat for defense is actually a gore-covered machete, and he’s holding the damn mask in his hands. Worse yet, while the person wearing it may be silent, the mask itself has plenty to say—or, rather, whisper sweet nothings about put me on and killthemkillthemKILLTHEM, and Sam is hard-pressed to resist.
Despite very quickly accessing this crucial information, Chuck, to her credit, does not think the worst of her friend—her reaction suggests that he’s gotten himself into a pickle more than anything else. After all, he only slashes people when he’s wearing that sinister mask. So, with a treasure trove of occult texts in the store’s backroom and an exhaustive mental inventory of horror-movie tropes, Chuck proceeds to talk Sam through how he’s going to get out of this bloodbath alive. Already the movie is subverting a trope! A woman is on the phone with a killer, but he’s not threatening her with “What’s your favorite scary movie?” or “Have you checked the children?” Instead, she is the key to his salvation.
You Might Be the Killer establishes its kooky premise fairly early on and spends the rest of its runtime lampshading and subverting horror tropes, Cabin in the Woods-style. But where Cabin interrogates the notion of trying to shoehorn actual humans into horror-movie archetypes—and featured Kranz’s brilliant portrayal of the quintessential stoner, complete with telescoping bong that saves the day—You Might Be the Killer falls short of that caliber of commentary. If you squint, it’s sort of about a guy fighting back against this evil identity into which he’s been thrust, of trying to divorce his true, good nature from the death he’s brought about: “It’s not me!” he exclaims, even as his slashing hands say otherwise.
The thing is, Sam is a good dude: sweetly earnest about making this the best summer ever; blissfully oblivious to the fact that his praise of fellow counselor Steve “the Kayak King!” (Bryan Price) falls short, seeing as the camp has only canoes; yearning to be seen as something more serious by former fling Imani (Brittany S. Hall). This cursed object couldn’t have found a nicer victim… and yet, despite these traits, it’s still difficult to really care about Sam’s predicament. And the constant repetition of ripping off the mask long enough to talk to Chuck, then giving back in, then managing to tear it off briefly again, gets exhausting. There’s no emotional arc to Sam’s experience with the mask, only his mounting panic and the accompanying body count (shown through an amusing, ever-changing onscreen visual).
Meanwhile, Chuck is a mostly passive character, much as we get the warm’n’fuzzies of seeing Hannigan back in a semi-magical support role. (She suggests a spell!) At least when Randy got his fellow teens hip to horror rules in Scream, he also got to join in the action. Here, Chuck is limited to contextualizing why it was a bad idea for Sam to tell the other counselors the creepy story about the mask in the first place and advising on how Sam really should stop before he’s left with just a Final Girl, because that’s when things will get really bad for him.
Speaking of, there’s a moment in the film when it seems as if the two remaining female counselors will actually challenge that Final Girl narrative… and then the action yet again veers away from Cabin in the Woods and more toward Highlander. It’s downright disappointing, yet not unexpected, as the movie has proven that most of its characters are really just vessels for the eventual punchline. Part of the problem is the length; a feature film is just too much time to stretch this excellent joke. You Might Be the Killer would have done better as a tight hour, akin to an episode of Black Mirror or an installment of Hulu’s Into the Dark anthology series. (It could’ve fit as Fourth of July!)
If you enjoy poking the horror genre with a stick, you’ll still find plenty to appreciate in You Might Be the Killer, most of all Franz and Hannigan’s charismatic embodiment of Sykes and Wendig’s original witty riff. This isn’t a classic to add to the canon, but it’s an entertaining exercise.