After contributing to several anthology films, including the V/H/S films and The ABCs of Death, director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett return to their first feature since 2011’s You’re Next, (a film that finally hit theaters to warm reception in 2013) with The Guest. Adept talents for entertaining, tongue-in-cheek scenarios, Wingard and Barrett exert equal levels of over-the-top bits with their latest endeavor, but with a sharper mix of subversive commentary and tightly plotted thrills that feels like an homage to the off-the-cuff glory days of John Carpenter. A penchant for comedic asides may cause fans of their previous works to favor something like You’re Next, but Wingard and Barrett deliver a fun, stylish, highly enjoyable throwback with their latest, the kind of film genre fans endlessly seek but so rarely find in today’s glut of mind-numbingly staged grandstanding.
Living out their rather stale existence in New Mexico, the Peterson family hasn’t managed to get over the loss of an eldest child that died in action in Iraq. Dad (Leland Orser) has taken to the bottle while Mom (Sheila Kelly) breaks into tears when left on her own. But out of the blue, a man named David (Dan Stevens) shows up on the Peterson doorstep one morning, claiming to be the best friend of their deceased son. Since he has just been discharged, David claims to be keeping a promise by arriving to inform them of their son’s dying message to his family. Instantly, he is taken in to their house as a guest, and David soon finds himself helping each family member with their particular personal problems, including some righteous retribution in the name of their younger son, who is bullied out school. But daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) isn’t quite convinced that Davis is who he says he is, despite the fact that she finds herself rather attracted to him. As she begins to question his flimsy story, we start to learn about a very insidious side of David, lurking under that all-American smile.
Before it gets too Teorema on us, a mid-film reveal about military experiments will either tickle your fancy or slide you off into distraction, though it’s presented with such poker faced seriousness that Lance Reddik’s over-the-top performance feels every bit at home here as similar twists in blockbuster fanfare like something from the ongoing Bourne films (as well as a distant echo of The Manchurian Candidate). It also serves as an underlying subversive streak, a unique and nagging abstraction about current war time politics, sandwiched into genre in the glorious tradition of horror films from days past.
But whatever your tastes, one can’t overlook the surprisingly enjoyable performance from a newly chiseled Dan Stevens, whose rather dowdy presence in Downton Abbey and Summer in February will have many barely recognizing the blond haired, blue eyed monster that dominates nearly every scene of The Guest. A handful of hysterically funny scenes punctuated with a few highly entertaining and very violent action sequences shows an unprecedented side of the performer.
Also quite effective is Maika Monroe, a throwback to the days when the corner on female adolescent angst was dominated by the likes of Christina Ricci and Rose McGowan. And then there’s the stupendous score by Stephen Moore (who is one half of the space rock duo known as Zombi), and a handful of atmospheric tracks from the likes of The Sisters of Mercy, Stevie B., and Survive which make for delectable accompaniment to Robby Baumgartner’s 80’s inspired look. The Guest is sleek, fun entertainment, a reminder of a bygone era when an influx of entertaining genre films existed in greater quantity.
Reviewed on January 18 at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival – Midnight Section. 99 Mins.