2014, 99mins, 18
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Cast includes: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Ethan Embry, Joel David Moore, Candice Patton, Leland Orser
UK Release Date: 5th September 2014
Stranger danger. We tell children never to talk to them, to avoid getting in unfamiliar cars and to reject each and every offer of mysteriously sourced confectionery. Yet, with the passing of youth, fear of the unknown still never subsides, even when it comes in the form of an impeccably groomed, rigorously polite Adonis like David (Dan Stevens). I was fortunate enough to travel through childhood sans any direct contact with alien menace, but I do recall a chill when stories of local children being harassed by men behind blacked out windows emerged. It put everyone on red alert, and for weeks incurred fifty warnings before you so much as went out to kick a football. Even now, when the news blares out stories of abduction, I can't help but shudder. Not just because of the inherent tragedy or suffering it forces upon the victim's loved ones, but rather to mourn the nightmarish sentiment that they've vanished into nothingness. Adam Wingard's “The Guest” takes our mistrust of the interloper, and uses it to different effect. Like Hitchcock with “Shadow of a Doubt”, Wingard forces the unwanted presence into that safest of domains, the domestic, upsetting the protection which falsely defines this space in our minds. Powered by a clinical 9/11 subtext, “The Guest” isn't afraid to make us laugh, and Stevens certainly ranks as one of the modern cinema's more enigmatic creeps, but that doesn't override the foundation of fright endorsed by the feature's premise.
The Petersons are grieving the loss of their son Caleb, killed in action whilst serving his country overseas. Out of the blue arrives David, an attractive, refined and ostensibly considerate colleague of Caleb's, carrying out a duty to visit the deceased soldier's family. Each member of the clan slowly warms to David as he's invited to stay; helping to smooth out their lives, sometimes using unorthodox practice. Eventually daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) decides to inquire about David's past, finding most avenues closed. Within days bodies begin to pile up, Anna suspicious their guest might be culpable.
Deploying the War on Terror as a means of informing story is hardly revelatory, but “The Guest” never lets itself become laden with sombre acts of contemplation, unlike recent fare such as “Godzilla” or “Man of Steel”. The commentary is always decipherable, but it never invades or undercuts the movie's various other joys. For a start, “The Guest” has a delightfully sardonic sense of humour, a twisted and unsympathetic funny-bone open to black feats of comedy. It merges well with Wingard's love of exploitation-tinged violence, particularly during some early set-pieces. A sequence in which David dispatches a host of testy bullies is expertly mounted, commencing with crisply penned barbs and culminating on a burst of contained but well choreographed action. In a lot of ways that's the picture's winning formula; do as much as you can with as little as possible. The budget's been enhanced since Wingard's last outing (the intermittently inspired “You're Next”), but we're still some distance from big, Hollywood bucks. Instead Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett find cunning ways around their limitations, perhaps best evidenced by the integrated use of a shonky, but atmospheric Halloween light show during the movie's finale. Not only does it allow the film-makers to work sprightly kitsch into the exteriors, but admits a fun exploration of cinematic influence. “The Guest” literally ends amid smoke and mirrors, with a baddie who'd give Michael Myers a run for his money in the resurrection stakes. That's genre film-making.
The guilt of contemporary America is explored both through the Peterson's uncertain welcome and the deadbeats who cohabit their community. Ethan Embry (“Can't Hardly Wait”) and Joel David Moore (“Avatar”), depicting pot-smoking reprobates afraid to enlist, make for fine scapegoats, a nice detailing of the lazy, uneducated mass who drum up support for war, sending soldiers to their demise. The film's final twist perhaps provides the cream on top, explaining in the craziest terms possible that after the conflict David hasn’t been the same. It's not exactly subtle, but then neither is the film as a whole. Its leading man, the destined for stardom Stevens, certainly isn't adverse to overt nods and wry double-takes, filling the screen with what can only be described as immense charisma. As the family moan and do battle with their various demons, David gets about completing the mission, his fixation and Stevens' prowess forming the best sort of smirking, uber-functional anti-hero. It gets a bit maniacal and blood-lusty by the finish, but for the most part David is the alluring tour-guide helping us peer through Wingard's suspenseful orgy of sex, violence and conspiracy. Frankly, I was content to travel with him.
The supporting characters are barely worth talking about, foils for the plot and ciphers for the picture's social conscience. No, “The Guest” is Stevens' and Wingard's show, a slickly executed and oft probing throwback to when heroes were nasty, blood spurted gratuitously and strangers stared to exude that seedy aura of mistrust. It'll make your inner child wince and chuckle in equal measure.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014