Dir: Adam Wingard
Written By: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Ethan Embry, Joel David Moore
UK release: September 5th 2014
A family, grieving for the loss of their son, has their quiet home life turned upside down when a mysterious ex-soldier turns up on the doorstep, claiming to be a friend of the deceased and offering a shoulder to cry on.
Pitched, by director Adam Wingard, as an ode to the classic John Carpenter flicks he and writer/collaborator Simon Barrett adored growing up, The Guest is as far removed a follow-up from last year’s slasher smash hit You’re Next as one could hope to get – although it is still, technically, based around a home invasion.
Charting the exploits of ex-soldier David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, in a career-making lead performance) as the titular guest, the film follows the grieving Peterson family, who unknowingly let him into their home after he turns up out of the blue, claiming to be a friend and ex-comrade of their dead son, recently killed in combat.
At first, David seems like the perfect house guest and is welcomed into the family with open arms, almost to fill the void in a way, but before long things take a sinister turn and it is only when daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) starts to investigate his claims that the truth is revealed.
The Guest is an impressive departure for regular collaborators Wingard and Barrett, whose output, both separately and as a team, tends to deal mostly with the slasher-orientated, often very gory, side of horror. First and foremost, there’s a well-judged streak of black humour present throughout the flick, particularly in son Luke’s reactions to David’s matter-of-fact and violent method of problem-solving for otherwise normal issues, such as school bullies.
Most of the action takes place in daylight, a bold move for a film of this nature that epitomises how brave and inventive it is. The gore is minimal, and the scares rooted in tension rather than shocks. It’s also one of the most original genre offerings in years, in spite of the debt it owes to classic eighties horror, and Carpenter’s celebrated work with Halloween, in particular.
Stevens’ performance is astonishingly revelatory. Charming, terrifying and almost robotic in nature, David slowly assimilates himself into the unsuspecting family, thereby proving that Stevens can more than hold his own as both a leading man, and a villain. He does sly American better than an actual American, which is quite an achievement for a guy from Surrey, who up until this point was known mainly for playing a posh type on Downton. Everyone falls madly in love with David, almost instantly, and it’s easy to understand why – if this role doesn’t launch Stevens into the stratosphere, nothing will.
The supporting characters more than hold their own opposite him, too, in particular newcomer Monroe who wisely straddles the line between sexy ingénue and suspicious rebel. Brendan Meyer is equally effective as her too-trusting brother, who thinks nothing of David letting loose on a bar full of underage kids in a bloody, awe-inspiring and hilarious set-piece that forms the centrepiece of the film. Likewise, their tortured parents, who could easily have been grief-stricken zombies, instead are desperately struggling to keep everything afloat in the wake of their loss, while also remaining relevant to each other.
Boasting a much wider scope than Wingard’s previous offerings, The Guest manages to be strangely funny, nail-bitingly tense and wonderfully thrilling – often all at once. The normal, almost boring, family routine that David so easily disrupts is punctuated by sharp bursts of the classically rough, very bloody violence for which Wingard is already well-known. However, The Guest keeps its fear rooted firmly in the realistic, and the everyday. There are no masks or unknown presences, save for two, blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em references to its predecessor that are wisely slotted into the narrative.
Robby Baumgartner’s cinematography is breathtaking, particularly in capturing the wide, expansive New Mexico countryside. Otherwise, the camera is kept tight on the characters’ as they react to the steadily stranger occurrences, creating a sense of claustrophobia that is particularly effective in a sequence set entirely in a school gym, decked out as a haunted maze, which is incredibly tense, with each corner twisting to make escape seem virtually impossible.
However, it’s Steve Moore’s mind-blowing, synth-heavy score that is the real star of the show, eclipsing even Dan Stevens’ buff torso. A character in itself, it gives The Guest its pulse, rumbling along constantly to establish tension, fear, joy, sorrow and everything in between. It’s a remarkable piece of work, from the gothic strains filling Anna’s headphones, to the loud, pulsating bass notes that build gradually as everything goes to hell. The Guest’s soundtrack is certain to be the must-have of the year – it makes Drive sound dull in comparison – and it’s impossible to imagine the film without it.
Halloween itself is a key feature of the narrative, with the first shot of a pumpkin establishing the time of year in spite of the sunny weather, while the aesthetic is firmly eighties, in the best possible way. Although it’s different to Wingard’s previous work, The Guest follows a similar trajectory to You’re Next as the carnage comes hard and fast in the final act, rarely letting up once it’s begun. It’s undoubtedly Carpenter-esque, and yet it’s also a fascinating meditation on the state of modern horror, with Wingard explaining that the premise is almost like imagining Michael Myers living in one’s own home – in fact, if Carpenter were to make Halloween nowadays, it may have turned out a lot like this.
The Guest may not be to everyone’s tastes, and horror fans, in particular, might turn their noses up at it, as not only does it not play like a typical genre flick, but it harks back to a time long since past, one that we may look upon fondly but not necessarily want to revisit in a modern context. However, this is destined to be a cult classic, if it doesn’t make big bucks at the box office like You’re Next (although it deserves to be a hit, even more so than its predecessor).
Funny, inventive, engaging, thrilling and with a killer central performance from Dan Stevens, The Guest will reaffirm your faith in mainstream horror, and with nary a torture device or an unsteady GoPro in sight.