The Guest is the latest baby from filmmaking duo Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, most notable for gifting us last year’s phenomenally entertaining home invasion horror You’re Next. That movie (which all genre fans should give some time over to) saw them breaking away from the more navel-gazing productions that had carried their names before. As usual Barrett plays scribe here while Wingard directs and edits. And while their love for horror is still evident, The Guest is a quixotic blend of many different elements, totally unique this year, yet very hard to pin down. As with You’re Next, its immensely entertaining, even as it dares the audience to guess which is its true face.
The clues are there early on, triggered upfront by a title card that announces itself with cacophonous glee. Such sledgehammer sound stings recur through the picture, asking us to question how seriously to take the movie, just as some of the heightened performances do. As much as we want to sink into the drama, it is as if Wingard can’t help but nudge us in the ribs, grinning, “It’s only a movie, stupid!”
If this sounds like the creative team have contempt for their audience, then nothing could be further from the truth. It’s more as though Barrett and Wingard are trying to break down the preconception that horrors and thrillers need to be tightly-wound, constipated, morose exercises. It’s all well and good being moody and atmospheric, but where’s the fun? Between You’re Next and The Guest they’re making their case as this decade’s most lovable tricksters.
All of which dodges around the meat of what you probably want to know about The Guest. Some plot details, then…
Meet the Peterson family, who’ve recently lost their favoured son in Afghanistan. Sheila Kelley plays the grieving mother, Leland Orser is the mild-mannered father, resigned to middle management. More prominently there is Brendan Meyer as their quiet son, Luke, and last but by no means least is Maika Monroe as nearly-out-the-door daughter Anna, working lates at the local diner and dating a loser. Into their lives steps David (Dan Stevens), fresh out of the military, built like a GQ model’s most desired self-image, who arrives on their doorstep and quickly ingratiates himself into daily life; a living, breathing substitute for their keenly felt loss.
David’s physical prowess is matched by his mild-manners and his forthright approach to problem solving… with sudden bouts of violence. Thus, in no time at all, Luke’s problem with school bullies is abruptly nullified and dad’s career prospects are steadily looking rosier. Anna is having none of it, however, and though she is occasionally smitten by steamy encounters in the bathroom doorway, she smells a rat where David is concerned, and starts making inquiries with the military base.
Which, really, proves to be something of a mistake. Curiosity might not kill the cat, but it could annihilate your family. To probe further into the bizarre plot swerves that The Guest has in store would be to ruin half of the fun. What’s worth reiterating is that, as the summer season draws to an end, Barrett and Wingard have offered up perhaps its most joyful and violent pleasure. But one seemingly destined for cult status.
The colour palette is warm from the beginning, recalling the Technicolor suburban thrillers that proved so popular in the resplendent excess of the 80’s. It’s a decade that is conjured elsewhere, not least in the electronic score which owes as much of a debt to John Carpenter as the music in You’re Next did. And while we’re on the subject of music, The Guest proves to be the second film this summer to use a character’s retro mix to superior effect. Appropriately, however, Barrett and Wingard’s selections will rate higher on the hipster-approval-register, an algorithm that surely must exist somewhere on the internet. What we have here, potentially, is the best soundtrack since Drive.
The Guest may wink gratifyingly at its audience for much of the first hour, but it mostly uses this time to build a sense of reality ready to be torn down later. David’s initial appearance at the Peterson house feels like something out of a play, imbued with sadness and pocked with deft silences filled with pathos. It is only as the violence escalates, and David’s manner grows more and more unhinged (a phenomenal piece of charismatic acting from Stevens) that the bubble bursts and the audience is left in manic, B-movie free-fall. Basically, once Lance Reddick appears, escalating chaos isn’t far behind.
I’m writing this is England. We don’t have drive-in movie theatres in this country. But if we did, then The Guest is exactly the sort of film I would want to see at one. It wears a smirk like a Cheshire Cat, is joyfully unapologetic for its swerving tone, and, at its end, lovingly embraces as many wry nods to the horror classics of old as it can get its filthy little hands on. All without ever particularly feeling derivative. Barrett and Wingard may be besotted with past glories, but they’re not all about pure homage. It helps raise The Guest above the schlocky, tacky also-rans still appearing in the wake of the nu-Grindhouse fad.
Some audiences will instinctively resist the crazier elements that bulldoze down the traditional thriller at the core of The Guest, and it certainly has a disarming effect on first watch, but that’s also part of the fun, part of the thrill, part of the sheer enjoyment of this totally bonkers story. And while Monroe’s Anna may be a less obviously equipped heroine than Erin from You’re Next, her final moves against David are as engrossing as anything Barrett and Wingard have thought up previously, making this film stand toe to toe with their prior successes. If you can ride the bucking-bronco that is The Guest you’ll find plenty of rewards throughout. Not for everyone, but the best never really is.