by Ken B.
Two-thirds of the way through Adam Wingard’s The Guest, the film, with its tongue planted firmly in cheek for the majority of its 100 minute running time, takes a sharp turn both deeply telegraphed yet still a bit jarring, but ultimately thrilling. It moves from a slow burning drama of paranoia to a full-blown ‘80s-esque horror finale, with a quickly racked up body count and a share of explosive moments. The soundtrack, which has fascinated itself with dreamy synth-pop riffs, also clocks up the levels and has that type of nostalgic, throwback feel. A cynical reviewer could argue that the movie takes two acts to build to a third, but I’d say the third act is the logical conclusion of what preceded – despite a rather abrupt transition, it’s the only thing that could happen.
But to understand why, you must understand how it begins. The Guest is about the Peterson family – parents Spencer (Leland Orser) and Laura (Sheila Kelly) and their two children, twenty (almost twenty-one) year old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and high-school aged son Luke (Brendan Meyer). There was another child – Caleb was the eldest of the three, but he died in Afghanistan during the war. The Petersons live in a small, southern town. It’s just before Halloween, and they are understandably still grieving in a quiet, interior way, but a new light is shed upon the situation one morning upon the abrupt arrival of David Collins (Dan Stevens), a recently discharged soldier who served with Caleb. David made a promise that he, in Caleb’s place, would visit the Petersons and help take care of the family. Initially suspicious, they slowly welcome David into their home for a few days. He seems just too good to be true – rugged, charming, and helpful, he takes down the bullies tormenting Luke at school and becomes popular with Anna’s friends. But then something starts happening. People from around town start dying in violent ways. This never happened before, of course. A suspicious Anna does some research, and discovers that David, the seemingly perfect stranger, may not be who he says he is. But the truth is far more dangerous than anyone thought.
The plot is pulpy, yes. By the end, it’s become cheesier than a Wisconsin cheddar factory. But The Guest knows exactly what it’s doing and has relatively full control over its tone, which makes it all the more tantalizing. Wingard, working from a script by Simon Barrett, repeats a style that dominated their prior collaboration, You’re Next – using a straightforward plot structure to craft strikingly black comedy mixed with legitimate plot building. It climaxes with a mesmerizing, transfixing final setpiece, which takes place in an otherwise empty, burning rec center built for a Halloween dance, complete with a haunted house fun maze which becomes genuinely creepy considering the circumstances. Candy-colored automated spotlights dance on our actors, a disco ball reflects the light, and layers of fog from smoke machines obscure the floor. Imagine this, on top of flames slowly eating away the scenery and this euphoric song from the soundtrack. That’s what kind of film this is. It goes over the top and then some, but it’s something that it does without snarky winks to the camera. There’s a fine line between unintentional parody and coy genre play, and The Guest hits it more often than not.
If more people had seen this movie, we could have called this Dan Stevens’ starmaking performance. The character of David Collins is both twisted and twisting, and you can tell Stevens had a lot of fun in the role. Through this, he and Wingard achieve another aspect of ‘80s horror – in the vein that after all these years people have something of a soft spot for Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, you can’t hate David outright, despite the fact that over the course of the film he kills about twenty people, either onscreen or off. Is it his chiseled figure and staggering handsomeness? His disarming politeness? His playful Southern drawl? His piercing blue eyes? Who knows. What I do know is that when Stevens played Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey, I saw him as little else but one of the many moving pieces on Julian Fellowes’ chessboard, but he proves himself as a versatile leading man here, and he’s got my attention. His costars, especially Maika Monroe as Anna, keep the ball rolling even when the titular character is absent.
Before I go, I’d like to share one last observation. This movie, theoretically, could represent a lot of things – an argument against the concept of the universal soldier in terms of American pop culture’s obsession with militaristic aggression, to an elaborate allegory for PTSD, among 21st century vets, specifically. I have a hard time believing Barrett’s script is entirely without subtext. There are many different ways to view this, from the most complicated political sensibility to a base concept where everything seen is taken at face value. Wingard accommodates all entry points. But at the center of it all, there’s a very clear conclusion that I took away: The Guest is a deviously entertaining little thriller with big ideas and bigger style.