An 80’s B movie influenced thriller with horror elements from Your Next (2011) director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. The Guest is a big departure for Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as “David” a soldier returning from duty who stops to pass on a message to the family of his dead comrade. David claims to have instructions to look after the Petersons, but the still grieving family are letting themselves in for more than they bargained for by inviting David into their home and lives.
The Guest is a mixed bag of genres with about 2/3 small town thriller and 1/3 slasher movie. The initial suspense surrounding David’s intentions trickles away quickly as bad things start happening to the films supporting characters. The lack of tension is made up for with heaps of visual style, although personally, I am a bit sick of pink and blue as a color scheme, (Only God Forgives, Hummingbird, Drive) however Wingard couples this with an impressive and innovative soundtrack which elevates proceeding to what can only be described as ‘modern Argento,’ where visuals and sound combine to create a surrealist, dreamy atmosphere.
The most interesting thing about The Guest is that despite the sinister aspects of David’s presence in the home David actually brings something important to each individual family member. For the mother he fills the position in the family left by her dead son. This is of course also what initially unsettles daughter Anna and her father. Mr. Peterson is quickly won around as he needs someone who can act as a soundboard for his inadequacies in the workplace. David is happy to sit silently and drink beer with him. David teaches the Peterson’s son Luke who is bullied at school self defense (or maybe self preservation) Thinking that he has found a ‘friend’ Luke is perfectly happy to become a mini David. Anna is harder to convince. She is suspicious of David from the start. At a party David attempts to win her over by assimilating with her friends, partaking in recreational drug use, and when he drives her home he tells her that he likes her taste in music and wants her to make him a mixtape.
It is clear that each family member is lonely and needs someone that they can confide in who will listen without judgment. (This is a fascinating comment on a society where whole groups of people can have a conversation where everyone is talking about themselves but no one is listening, just waiting for the next cue to speak) We could perhaps presume that the dead older son used to fulfill that role (or perhaps not) either way the families lines of communication are broken and each individual is quick to put feelings of intuition to one side in exchange for what David offers them. When Anna is making her playlist we can see that she is starting to fall hard for David. But the next day she overhears him talking mysteriously on his phone and her suspicion is reignited. Things must come to a head.
I get the impression that David on some level does genuinely care about the family , and wants to make things better for them, but he is also driven to react in the way he does by forces beyond his control. David is an emotionless character (played brilliantly by Stevens) so it is hard to say whether things, like desire, are things he feels or things that others project onto him. This is illustrated by David’s sex scene; when he sleeps with Anna’s friend Kristen she suggests that he isn’t into it and then all of a sudden he becomes very ‘passionate.’
Anna is a very restrained person like David is. At one point we see her on a set of swings with her boyfriend. She is reluctant to show emotion about her dead brother and pulls away when her boyfriend tries to show her physical affection. Anna and David seem to share a connection deeper than with the rest of her family, even the girl he sleeps with means nothing to him. The emotional psyche of the characters is played out through the films soundtrack choices with a host of songs about whether or not people are sharing genuine emotions. Even at the end after some truly terrible things have happened it is as if Anna and David still share their connection.
The Guest is disjointed and is intense rather than tense, but I enjoyed it in spite of or maybe because of these quirks. The film didn’t quite grab me around the throat in the way that Your Next did, but I am still thinking about the deeper meaning of the piece which is an important quality for a film to have. Wingard is good with actors and, in partnership with Barrett, he is very competent with bringing out the intimate family drama in a piece as well as some really great moments of black comedy. If there is anything that bothers me it is that I would love to watch a film from Wingard solely based on the last sequence of The Guest because as a concept for a slasher film it was so tantalising. But I suppose it is best not to get pigeonholed.
The Guest is also filled with some great references to classic films as well as Wingard and Barrett’s earlier work. The Guest is set in the run-up to Halloween, so for much of the time it looks like the set of a Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) sequel, (preferably to six) there are a couple of references to Halloween 3, at one point we see some of the extras wearing the animal masks from Your Next, and there is a great cameo near the end from AJ Bowen. When Anna’s boyfriend gets arrested and her father won’t listen to her it is reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, (Wes Craven, 1984) and the horror maze at the end is very the Man With the Golden Gun. Plus the android in Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012) is also called David and the UK trailer for The Guest was definitely riffing on the Prometheus viral ads for David 8.
All in all The Guest is a very fascinating and enjoyable movie, I am glad it got a wide release, and I look forward to seeing what Wingard and his team come up with next.