With the door firmly closed behind him, the darkly sinister stranger has locked out any hope of escape with a stern push of the handle. Our female protagonist sits silently, frozen with fear at the thought of her imminent fate. The shady figure ahead lowers to her level and reassures the trembling girl that he’s a normal guy. He tells her inquiries into his shady past should be ceased immediately, or else.
“Ok?” he rhetorically asks with a glare. We know the girl silently accepts his deadly ultimatum, but the man wants an answer. “Ok?” he asks again, forcing the girl to irritatedly confirm the obvious. With that, the tone shifts and as the tension of their previous exchange is broken. This once daunting figure cheerily heads for the door. Apropos of nothing, he thanks the girl for the 80s CD mix she’s left on the side. The whole sequence left me with a furrowed brow.
The Guest is filled with subtly twisted and wholly peculiar caveats that steer the film away from its appearance as another run-of-the-mill thriller. It may utilise the well-trodden path – a mysterious stranger penetrates the sanctuary of the family home – but the film soon edges away from its clichéd premise. Taking into account that writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, makers of horror/parody You’re Next, are behind The Guest, it all begins to make a bit more sense.
The Guest follows an earnest, polite young soldier named David Collins (Dan Stevens) as he arrives at a quiet suburban home owned by the Peterson family. He claims to be a friend and colleague of their son Caleb who was killed in Afghanistan. While seemingly normal and truthful in his appearance, there is something intangibly unusual about his presence. Nevertheless the fractured, grieving family invites Collins to stay with them. The mother, Laura (Sheila Kelley), vicariously resurrects her son through the lodger. Of course this charming man isn’t as wonderful as we, or the Petersons, are led to believe, but it is only their daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) who remains sceptical about his backstory.
Like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, the audience waits with bated breath for the unsettling houseguest to unveil the psychopath lurking below. However, The Guest refuses to part with its narrative progression so easily. Rather than turning thriller protocol on its head, The Guest subverts the expected and knocks the narrative just off-kilter like some punch drunk B-Movie. It leaves us with an odd conundrum as the film paradoxically revels in and distorts genre clichés.
Dan Stevens, Britain’s answer to Ryan Gosling with his the steely gaze, washboard abs and effortless ambience of cool, perfectly encapsulates this bizarre vision. His character struggles to balance psychopathic tendencies with more tender moments. Like a serial killer who hasn’t read the handbook, Collin’s breaks rank from faceless psychopaths like Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees, instead quite happy to crash teenage parties, do the laundry and offer Luke heartfelt (but sadistic) advice on dealing with bullies.
Like the bastard son of The Terminator and Ryan Gosling in Drive, Collins is a deceptive blend of beauty and beast. He left me with the wonderfully novel problem of polarized affection. The ambiguous embrace offer to the protagonist epitomises The Guest’s desire to scramble convention. Barrett and Wingard give audiences a refreshing take on characters and scenes that have become hackneyed with familiarity.
In a similar vein to You’re Next, The Guest revels in being an homage to older films, plotting itself as a retro-chic mashup of Hammer Horror, classic slashers, grindhouse cinema and B-movies. The film is playfully conceived and ludicrously excessive as it embraces tropes like the small American town stuck in an eternal Halloween. Barrett and Wingard fill their film with inopportune sentiments like a 80s synth CD mixes, obligatory love scenes and overzealous bar brawls. The oblivious, dopey school kids and the pretty girl, inevitably heading for the chopping block, are also unmistakably lifted from the 70s and 80s horror heyday.
The Guest brings to mind Liam Neeson’s unstoppable tide of banal thrillers. Those films, while well-aware of their own ridiculousness, take a laughably austere tone. In contrast, The Guest takes a darkly funny, tongue-in-cheek approach, rejoicing in the absurdity of cinema. Straight from the off with the film’s Hammer Horror-like opening title credits, I realised what lay ahead wasn’t quite what I’d bargained for. While it never threatens as a full on parody, it’s wholly aware of how daft and wonderful old school horrors and thrills can be.
The Guest oozes all the hallmarks of a cult classic; distinctively offbeat, stylishly directed, suitably ironic and smattered with brutal violence. It’s like a fully realized film ripped from the hilarious fake trailers from 2007 Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse. It’s a bizarre mashup but it works, resulting in a strange and enduring film that proves that there is room to manoeuvre outside of formulaic pressures, all while having a laugh at the idiosyncrasies of cinema.
Doubtless there will many who completely miss the point of The Guest and label it a stupid, outlandish thriller. But to those who spot the knowing nods and winks, it’s a raucously entertaining watch. Even if it does lose some of the wit and subtlety towards the end, The Guest could well be one of this year’s sleeper hits.
Movie Verdict: Win