God, I miss video stores. Netflix is great and all but there was something about walking down the aisles with all those worn VHS covers flowing across your field of vision as you searched for that perfect flick. You were usually looking for something different, something you’d never heard of before, something forbidden. When you found it, there was almost always gruesome artwork on the cover and a tag line like, ‘Herbert West has a good head on his shoulders…and another one on his desk!’ You’d pick it up, read the back as quickly as possible all the while making sure no one was going to sneak up, snatch it out of your hand, and arrest you for even considering renting something so bizarre and underground. I found some of my favorite movies on the back shelf of my local video store (miss you MJM) and Adam Wingard’s The Guest would have been right at home with the best of them. It’s not just a loving throwback to the 80’s though; it’s an intelligent thriller in its own right, a splendid mix of action and comedy, a huge step forward for lead actor Dan Stevens, and entertaining as all fucking hell.
Adam Wingard is rapidly becoming my favorite genre director. He tore apart the home invasion thriller with last years’ terrific You’re Next but with The Guest, he sets his sights on bigger fish. Wingard and co-writer Simon Barret are clearly interested in making movies that recall the ones they grew up with. Their influences here range from John Carpenter to Robocop to The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. But the movie is not defined by these influences. So many throwback movies are little more than a barrage of constant in-jokes and ‘wink-wink’ references (cough…cough…Machete). The Guest is more like a Tarantino flick: it’s heavily inspired by films of the past but combines all their elements to create something completely new.
The film stars Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens (yes, we’re all still mad at him for leaving but lets try to move on) as David, a former solider who arrives on the doorstep of the Peterson family. They’re son, Caleb, died in Iraq and Simmons tells the unsuspecting mother (Sheila Kelly) that he was a close friend, was even with him when he died. He’s kind, compassionate, and all too willing to accept their hospitality. The father (a hilarious Leland Orser) is hostile to this interloper at first but is soon just pleased to have a drinking buddy. The son Luke (Brendan Myer) doesn’t know what to make of David until he helps him tackle a bullying problem. And the 20 year old semi-rebellious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) finds David to be nothing more than a nuisance until he makes a big impression on her friends at a party.
We know, of course, that there is something very, very wrong with David. There’s malice hidden beneath his kind exterior. We get our first glimpse in a terrifically tense and hilarious scene where he takes on Luke’s bullies at a local bar. Soon after, Anna begins to suspect that David may be behind some violent crimes that start occurring in their peaceful community. It’s hard to figure out just how evil he is though or if he’s evil at all. He’s a dangerous man, yes, but he also acts as the family’s’ protector, comforting them in their grief and helping them with their day to day problems, albeit in the most violent ways possible.
So when we finally learn the truth about David (which the movie keeps vague all the way to the end), it’s still hard to figure out who to root for. Wingard and Barret have a great deal of fun playing with our expectations. We’re cheering David on in one scene and screaming in terror at his actions in the next. The way the movie jumps back and forth is very well done. Even better is the fact that we’re always laughing. This material, particularly David’s backstory, is utterly absurd but Wingard never lets us know that he’s in on the joke. Neither does Stevens. To a certain degree, this is like The Naked Gun of genre pictures: it’s hilarious precisely because it is played completely straight. Take the way Wingard juxtaposes Anna and David in their bedrooms at night. He sets up a shot through the window of her lying down listening to music, then he pans over to David as he stares out his own window with an evil look in his eye. A lesser director would add in a ‘da-da-dum’ music cue when the camera moves to David, but Wingard lets the silliness of a grown man staring menacingly at nothing but open fields speak for itself.
The movie goes into action overload in the second half and the result is never less than satisfying. This is when Stevens turns into a full blown action star. You’ve never seen the foppy British guy from Downton Abbey do shit like this. It’s hard to understate just how good Stevens is as David. He’s able to go from charming to sinister in seconds and he’s incredibly charismatic throughout, even as he’s brutally murdering everyone around him. Equally impressive are Monroe and Myer as the son and daughter. Myer nails the nerdy smart kid role and his reactions to Steven’s antics provide some of the biggest laughs. Monroe is a terrific final girl; smart, capable and easy to root for. Both of them feel like real people too, not cardboard cut outs from the thriller factory.
However, the highlight of the movie is the finale. I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll just say it takes place in a section of the local school decked out as a Halloween maze. Characters rush through the hall of mirrors, get spooked by hanging skeletons, and have to navigate their way through the thick fog on the dance floor while fighting for their lives. It’s a tour de force of suspense, art design, and music. It’s here that the 80’s sensibilities are most on display, as the pulsing synth score that has permeated the whole flick becomes almost omnipresent. Wingard keeps the suspense going and the music pumping right up until the last second and the movie ends with a moment that is equal parts a tribute to and satire of the typical horror movie conclusion.
Is there a point to all of this mayhem other than ‘fun’? Maybe. Wingard and Barret sneak in a few points about soldiers and their predisposition to ‘follow orders’. There’s a sense that David cannot help the horrible things he’s doing and, deep down, knows better. There’s also a great scene where David terrifies one of the locals after the guy says he ‘supports the troops’. Don’t worry though, The Guest is not a scathing indictment of the military: It’s a gleefully violent comedy, a disturbing thriller, a balls to the wall action flick, and the perfect throwback to the kinds of weird 80’s movies we grew up with. After I got home from seeing it, I went to my collection searching for a flick just like it to watch before bed. Then I realized that the highest compliment I can give the film is also the reason I did not succeed in my search: There is nothing quite like The Guest.
The Guest is playing in select theaters now. It opens wide October 3rd.