A mysterious ex-soldier gets invited into the lives of a family in The Guest, and he ends up bringing a hell of a lot of baggage with him. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) unleashes said baggage in an atmospheric slow burn-turned gonzo third act that never fails to entertain. Mixing equal parts exploitation thriller and dark wit, The Guest manages to slyly pick the pockets of the likes of Carpenter and Cameron without them feeling totally ripped off.
David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) knocks on the door of the Peterson house, telling mother Laura (Sheila Kelley) that he served with their deceased son Caleb in Iraq. Clamoring for any tie to their fallen son, she instantly takes to David and invites him to stay with the family. We soon meet 20 year old rebellious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and dork-ish high school son Luke (Brendan Meyer), along with wary worker Dad (Leland Orser). After very slight trepidation, the family starts to warm to David, who throws out steely-eyed charm like a demented Eddie Haskell. We the audience know David isn’t what he seems pretty much from the get go, but the family seems not to catch on. In a lesser film that might seem annoying, but Wingard keeps the film moving along briskly enough to not care.
Before the fit fully hits the shan in the Peterson household, we are introduced to a government operative named Carver (The Wire’s Lance Reddick), who is alerted to David’s whereabouts by a curious call from Anna (seems she’s the only one even slightly doubtful of David). We are given vague references to David’s backstory, but only enough to know he’s a bad dude. Carver gets a strike team and heads out for a showdown, leading to David’s transition from charming sociopath into full-on destructor. The climax is a nifty set piece, taking place in a school gym made up as a haunted house, replete with a spooky maze and fun house mirrors.
The Guest benefits from solid character actors like Orser and Reddick, but the star of the show is definitely Dan Stevens. He eats up every bit of his character, showing a presence not seen in a genre film in some time. Wingard credits The Terminator and Halloween as inspirations for this film and it shows. From David’s Arnold and Michael Meyers-esque singularity of purpose and movement to Carver’s Sam Loomis-like pursuit, there are obvious cues to pick up on. A scene involving David buying guns from a shady dealer (Ethan Embry) is a nice tip of the cap to The Terminator’s pawn shop scene with the great Dick Miller. However, with the possible exception of one really great, blatant Halloween III easter egg, it doesn’t pander to us in the way most 80s movie wannabes seem to do nowadays. It’s like making new music on an old instrument, a great trick rarely pulled off. And Wingard’s instruments are strong. An atmospheric synth score combines with a great eye for unique color and cinematography. It’s a sure hand at work.
The Guest isn’t the most original concept, neither was Wingard’s last movie,You’re Next. But as You’re Next was a fresh take on the home invasion film, The Guest is an accomplished entry into the life invasion genre. And while I can’t wait for Wingard to get bigger and better, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. Sometimes, just making a really kick-ass wheel is enough.
by Adam Easterling