If Adam Wingard showed us anything with You’re Next, it’s that he loves to pull the rug out from underneath us. That movie, which started as a clichéd home-invasion thriller and quickly turned into a whole lot of bloody fun, was an unexpectedly awesome treat. Believe it or not, The Guest is Wingard’s seventh feature film (in addition, he directed a few short films as well as some of the tapes for the eerie little V/H/S franchise, the first two of which I really liked.) Apart from the V/H/S movies and You’re Next, I haven’t seen any of the director’s work, but the fun twists and turns that he littered throughout the 2013 home-invasion flick was enough for me to have high expectations. And while I can’t yet determine whether I liked The Guest more than You’re Next, I enjoyed Wingard’s latest feature so much that the comparisons cease to exist.
It’s easy to look at the poster for The Guest and, in knowing that it’s coming from the guy who brought you You’re Next, expect a similar horror feature. In reality, that’s far from the truth. Wingard’s latest feature is better described as a thriller than a horror, but to tell you why would be encroaching on spoiler territory. Here’s the story, in my personal little spoiler-free zoning. A family is grieving over the loss of their son who died while serving in the Middle East. Out of nowhere, a strange man (Dan Stevens) shows up at their house (which is located in a rural area, in the middle of nowhere) and claims to have known their son in the war. The family, for a few contrived and unbelievable reasons, allow this stranger to stay in their home for a period of time. But the daughter (Maika Monroe) is suspicious of him, especially once things start happening around the small community to which they belong. To say anything more would be giving away too much.
Dan Stevens is brilliantly maniacal as The Guest, giving a subdued performance at first but steadily ascending into macabre excellence. When he arrives, you aren’t entirely sure what to think of him as he quietly stalks around and smiles politely, a faint glimmer of deceitfulness behind his eyes. Having seen many other movies with characters similar to that of The Guest, of course I didn’t trust him. Even in the moments that made me think he was actually just looking out for the family, Wingard would pan the camera close to his face, revealing an emotionless distance that allows the unreliability to creep back in. Stevens is terrific, and if his charming persona in Downton Abbey or his funny portrayal of Sir Lancelot in Night at the Museum 3 lead you to believe that he can’t pull off a sinister role, think again.
As The Guest enters the lives of the family, we get to know each member on a personal level. If you watched the CBS series Hostages (it got cancelled, but I still recommend that you watch it), you may find a few comparisons. In that show, men break into a family’s house and hold them hostage in a strange way, allowing them to come and go as they please but also keeping a sharp eye on them. With that, the men (and the audience) learn a lot about the family. Such is the case with The Guest, which lands the title character in the middle of their problems and circumstances, and allowing him to intervene whether they want him to or not.
The performances are all good and Dan Stevens in particular is exceptional, so how does the rest of the movie hold up? Well, Stevens’ performance isn’t the only great thing about the movie. Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, another 2014 hit, one of the biggest and best aspects of The Guest is the soundtrack. Having more in common with the soundtrack for Drive than the previously mentioned Marvel superhero movie, the soundtrack for The Guest is an ambient and symphonic love letter to 70s/80s horror movies. Love and Rockets, Clan of Xymox, and other bands like them are featured on the soundtrack, which unravels in the backdrop as wickedly awesome visual treats unfold. Visually and musically, the movie also has an admirable way of acknowledging horror movies of the 70s and 80s, specifically John Carpenter’s Halloween. This is a perfect Halloween movie. Is it technically a horror movie? I wouldn’t say so. But the entire movie is saturated with a Halloween vibe, not so much Carpenter’s film as much as the holiday. One of the opening shots of the movie is a scarecrow erected on the family’s property and it creates an eerie tone, and that tone never departs. The third act of the film is especially a tribute to the October festivities as a certain hunt goes down inside a stunningly gorgeous Halloween maze.
The movie goes by quickly, a 100-minute feature that is rapidly paced and perfectly set up. As the movie goes on and certain things about the character of The Guest are revealed, it becomes farfetched. And by farfetched I mean really freaking out there. But I didn’t mind. Adam Wingard’s ode to horror cinema is evident, whether it be the soundtrack that sometimes hearkens back to John Carpenter or the stylish introductory title sequence that resembles that of The Exorcist. Even though it goes off the rails, I think it means to. The Guest isn’t perfect, but it’s another solid feature from Adam Wingard, who may be someone to look out for.
Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality
Cast: Dan Stevens
Written by Simon Barett
Directed by Adam Wingard