From the opening titles of The Guest to the music and the film’s purposeful pacing, it’s pretty obvious that director Adam Wingard and his creative partner, writer Simon Barrett (they were both responsible for the twisted horror film You’re Next) are paying homage to master of horror John Carpenter. In addition to capturing the exact mood of Carpenter at the height of his success, The Guest is a lot of fun, mashing together horror, action and a touch of sci-fi, and allowing Downton Abbey heartthrob Dan Stevens to obliterate his squeaky clean image by tearing into the role of an ex-soldier with a very dark past.
As the film opens, we meet the Petersons, a grieving family still coming to terms with the death of son and older brother, Caleb, a soldier killed in the Middle East. Mom Laura (Sheila Kelly) is deep in depression, father Spencer (Leland Orser) shows signs of alcoholism, youngest son Luke (Brenden Meyer) has retreated from the world, and daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) is hanging out with drug dealers. Enter David Collins (Stevens), a buddy of Caleb’s from the Army. He shows up on their doorstep to deliver a loving final message from Caleb. David is charming, polite and haunted by the war. Laura is immediately taken by him and invites the young man to stay for a few days.
Each Peterson gradually falls under his spell, especially when dealing with their personal demons: Luke is being bullied at school; Spencer is being used and overlooked at his job; and Anna is struggling to break free from her dead end boyfriend. David inserts himself into all their lives and helps them “fix” their problems. Before long, all hell breaks loose and Lance Reddick shows up to explain just who David is and why he’s so dangerous.
I loved the way The Guest jumped right into the intrigue of David and how he’s not exactly the clean cut All-American guy. His very first night with the Petersons, as they all settle in for bed, he sits and stares out the window, full of menace and anger. Stevens does an excellent job making the quick transitions from good guy to badass, creating tension throughout the entire film. You’re never sure when he’s going to lose it, and even when he does, he has that inviting smile on his face. Stevens even infused him with sympathy. Intentional or not, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for David, even when he’s doing despicable things.
Maika Monroe also gives a great performance. As the heroine, she slowly unravels the mystery of David. The role requires her to go from heartsick, to lovesick, to sickened, and Monroe handles the range of emotions with ease. I’ve never seen her in any film before, but now I’m looking forward to It Follows later this year, in which she stars.
Wingard and Barrett exhibit a real knack for building tension and cutting through the intense scenes with just the right touch of levity to get your guard down right before another shocking moment takes place. Most of the film is a slow burn, in some ways like First Blood, another film where a soldier appears with good intentions. Once The Guest reaches its third act, instead of becoming just another action film, with dead bodies piling up, everything shifts gears and the movie suddenly becomes a brilliantly produced horror film. Besides Cold in July and Snowpiercer, I can’t think of another film from 2014 that kept me guessing until the very end. If you grew up admiring Halloween or The Thing, or if you recently discovered John Carpenter’s canon, The Guest is right up you alley.
The Blu-ray comes with DVD and digital HD copies, commentary by Wingard and Barrett, a Q&A with Stevens, and deleted scenes.