The Guest is the most recent thriller from writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, whose previous works include the well-received horror film You’re Next and segments in both V/H/S and V/H/S 2. Anyone who is familiar with these guys knows that they have a knack for mixing genres, specifically horror, action and dark comedy. That’s exactly what we get with the The Guest, along with its ’80s retro style and fantastic soundtrack, it is undeniably a whole lot of fun.
The Peterson’s welcome an unexpected guest into their home who introduces himself as David (Dan Stevens). David, a recently discharged soldier, claims to be a friend of their son who died in action in Afghanistan. He is polite, helpful, and an all around likable guy who earns the trust of everyone in the family except for the daughter Anna (Maika Monroe), who remains suspicious of him throughout. After some digging into his past, Anna eventually comes to realize that her suspicions are warranted and that David isn’t exactly who he says he is.
Dan Stevens, who is previously known for his role as the well-mannered Matthew Crawley in the series Downton Abbey is probably the last person I could imagine playing this role. I mean, he’s Matthew Crawley, he’s like the boy next door, not the crazed anti-hero/villain type. But that’s the beauty of him in this role. David is supposed to be likable. He’s got those baby blues and that soft spoken voice, yeah, I’d invite him in, too. So it’s easy to believe that the mom, Laura (Sheila Kelley), wouldn’t think twice about it, especially after he points himself out in a photo she has sitting up on the mantle of her son with David standing right next to him.
David works his way in with each of the family members. He becomes the dad’s (Leland Orser) personal drinking buddy and sits there and listens while he complains about his work problems. He develops a mentor type relationship with the son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), who is bullied at school, and David takes it upon himself to teach them a violent lesson. He helps the mom out with stuff around the house and becomes a bittersweet reminder for her of her own son who she’s been missing. The only person who doesn’t take to him right away is Anna. She is unappreciative of his sudden presence and doesn’t think that her family needs a walking, talking reminder of her dead brother. She warms up to him a bit during a friend’s party she’s forced to invite him to. Plus, she can’t resist swooning over the hot bod when she catches him walking out of the shower (I can’t blame her for that one). But these feelings soon dissipate and transform into full blown suspicion when she overhears David on the phone in an urgent sounding conversation. On top of that, one of her friends turns up dead and unexplained things continue to happen, all of which she attributes to his presence.
It’s clear to the audience from the start that there’s something not right with David. Even when you begin to like him, the camera will focus in on his face as he stares ominously into the distance. It’s actually hilarious to watch, it’s such an unsubtle way of reminding you that David is not the protagonist, even though you kind of want him to be. It’s like watching a parody of any old thriller/horror where the villain pretends to be a nice guy, but there’s just something in his eye that reminds you he’s actually bad. The Guest totally exaggerates that, and while some people may find it ridiculous, I think it’s awesome. The action scenes are so over the top and because Wingard has created this silly, self-aware environment right from the start, it all works so well.
Wingard and Barrett apparently took inspiration for this movie from Halloween and The Terminator, and this is definitely a mash up of those two genres. The setting in The Guest takes place some time around Halloween, which you can see right in the second shot of a scarecrow outside the Peterson’s house, and the theme remains prevalent throughout. There’s even an ending sequence which takes place inside a haunted maze with a house of mirrors, among other things. But it’s not just the holiday that makes a movie like this similar to movies like Halloween. David was created to be an ominous presence like Michael Meyers, the difference being that he doesn’t hide in the shadows and come out only to kill people, but he does become this retro slasher type villain towards the end, the kind who seemingly shows up out of nowhere and doesn’t need to run to catch you.
But David could also easily be placed inside a world like that in The Terminator because even though he can charm the pants off almost anyone when he wants to, there’s something about him that doesn’t exactly seem human, and the little that you learn about him later on in the movie kind of attests to this. The more obvious throwback to corny ’80s action movies like that is in the action itself, if you look at the way the bar scene is shot specifically, you’ll probably recognize this. It’s also hard not to laugh at Lance Reddick in the role of some kind of government military official, his character is just incredibly ridiculous, especially in the action scenes, and I’m pretty sure it was meant to be like that on purpose.
I can’t go on without mentioning the soundtrack in this movie. The soundtrack is just a whole entity in itself, it plays such a huge part in setting the tone and making this movie feel like a love letter to ’80s action and horror. There’s hardly a moment when there’s not a pulsating, electronic, synthpop type song playing in the background, and it has one of the longest soundtracks I’ve seen in such a short movie. It is definitely my favorite soundtrack from a movie last year, without a doubt, and I wasn’t even familiar with any of the artists on it before hearing it.
The Guest is an extremely fun movie that takes a mix of genres and turns them into a self-aware throwback to the ’80s. Dan Stevens is a revelation, and his role as David makes me feel a lot better about his decision to leave roles like that which he had Downton Abbey. I’m eager to see where his career takes him in the future. Even more so, I’m excited to see what Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard choose to do next, as they’ve proven themselves as a competent writer/director duo, and have made their way on to my list of filmmakers to look out for. The Guest is one of the most enjoyable movies from 2014, and it’s one I’ll probably never get tired of watching.