Adam Wingard is a filmmaker to watch. He clearly adores lowbrow genre flicks, and his career aim seems to be to be to produce some very polished examples of his own. His films are recognisable, but always with a little deconstruction and self-awareness to make them feel fresh. Like he did with slick home-invasion horror YOUR NEXT, he’s equally elevated and aped the horror-thriller with THE GUEST.
When David (Dan Stevens) appears on the Peterson family doorstep and claims to be the squadmate of their recently killed in action son, they are compelled to invite him into their home to hear affectionate stories of their son’s bravery and to embrace this seemingly nice young man as one of the family. But it becomes increasingly clear that something is amiss, and as David worms his way further into their lives, it becomes clear he has no intention of leaving.
The first half of The Guest is a tense, nuanced, slow-burner of a character piece. We’re given time to get to know the members of the Peterson family and their woes, we are equally compelled and creeped out by David and the way he affects the family unit. The second half is an all-out unashamedly trashy horror-tinged actioner. These disparate tones shouldn’t work together, and one should derail the other, but somehow Wingard makes this combination of extremes not only work, but excel. He’s a good all-rounder filmmaker really, in addition to executing a remarkable tonal balancing act, he has a distinctive, confident aesthetic style and the ability to encourage the best possible performances from his actors. He also really loves blood and carnage, but always stops short of becoming unpleasant.
You’ve never seen Dan Stevens like this before. He oozes charm and visibly simmers with menace all at once, making for a chill-inducing horror antagonist (particularly when Stevens switches on his uncanny valley smile). It’s not just Stevens’ show though, and the supporting players all bring something a little extra to their performances. Sheila Kelley excels as Laura, a mother ruined by grief, Leland Orser bring a very human bitterness to Spencer the father, and Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer give star-making turns as Anna and Luke the increasingly suspicious Peterson children. It’s fascinating to see the different tactics David uses to deceive each of them based on their personality types – he charms Laura, drinks with Spencer, flirts with Anna and protects Liam.
Everyone has been talking about the lean, mean, barroom brawl sequence where David demonstrates just how lethal he can be using furniture and hot sauce, and the editing and choreography here is indeed excellent, but the scene that sticks with me the most comes later and is much lower key. It takes place on a school corridor with the camera tight on David’s face. David has just saved Luke from being expelled from school by manipulating his Principal, and in gratitude Luke reveals he knows a little too much about what David is up to, but pledges to keep his secret. Here, Stevens goes through seemingly every human emotion possible in one unbroken 20-second shot. It’s a wonderfully versatile performance in microcosm.
The biggest action scene in the film is arguably its weakest element. Not only have we seen heavily armed black ops types trying and failing to hit their target through the walls of a brittle building countless times before, but here Wingard unfortunately can’t hide his film’s modest budget. It’s not badly done, it just doesn’t look or sound as sturdy as it should. The finale in contrast revels in being a little cheap-looking, intentionally appearing like the sickly neon-lit final showdown in a teen slasher.
Watching The Guest provides an equal rush of adrenaline and endorphins. It’s a thrill from beginning to end and it’s just so much honest-to-goodness fun throughout. One moment you’ll be almost in pain from the tension, the next you have the wonderful release of a gentle (or not so gentle) gag, then you’re back on the edge of your seat again within moments. It’s all very carefully calculated by Wingard and regular writer Simon Barrett, but it’s executed in a manner that almost looks casual. The Guest is an effective and high quality thriller with an antagonist all the scarier because he’s not supernatural, he’s just a guy in your house you can’t get to leave. SSP