Possibly the most fun genre effort this year, The Guest is an unabashedly hilarious and thrilling mash-up of spy flicks and 80s slashers from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the minds behind You’re Next and A Horrible Way to Die. While their previous efforts were entertaining, The Guest marks a huge step forward in terms of filmmaking acumen. It’s a comedy where every joke hits, an action film where the chaos remains contained and controlled, and a horror film that can still unnerve the audience without taking itself too seriously or literally.
Dan Stevens stars as David, an amiable and polite soldier just out of his most recent tour of duty who has come to stay with the Peterson family to fulfill the last request of a fallen member from his unit. The grieving mother (Sheila Kelly) sees David as a final reminder of her dead son. Dad (Leland Orser) thinks David’s a stand-up guy to have some beers with. Younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) sees David as someone who can help him stand up to bullies. But daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) isn’t convinced by the charming young man’s polite facade, and does some digging to finds out that David isn’t who he appears to be.
With a first half that plays like a deadpan comedy about a military man who makes everyone’s life better by being around and a second half that goes balls to the wall insane after a plot twist explaining David’s motivations, the film gets a lot of mileage at taking itself at face value, but never too seriously. Gone is the self-reflexivity of Wingard and Barrett’s last film, and replaced by a genuine desire to entertain without overdoing it. It’s a film that has to have the charm and energy to match the character at the centre of it and his patently ridiculous nature. They also adhere to the rule that every great action thriller has to have several memorable set pieces. Here they include a bar fight where David doesn’t break a sweat, a massive shootout that turns a home into a warzone, and a hilariously inspired finale that takes place inside of a high school haunted house maze. It’s cheeky fun set to an electronic, appropriately gothic soundtrack that heightens the material even more. You know how a song can be catchy? That’s precisely how The Guest feels. It gets inside the mind until people are sort of nodding their heads in agreement. It’s as infectious as a really good pop song that has a great beat and naughty lyrics.
That’s where Stevens’ comes in, and he’s cool as fuck, adopting a flawless American accent and down home swagger that echoes Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather. The audience seemingly knows from the opening frames what Anna already does, that there’s something deeply wrong with David. And yet, much like how David has to manipulate the family into liking him to accomplish his ultimate endgame, Stevens has to work even harder as an actor to make sure the audience gets on side with the character. David never becomes off putting, and while it’s never fully explained why the character turns on a dime partway through, we almost want to believe that there’s a perfectly good explanation for it. A great example of this comes late in the film when Luke has to tell David he knows what he’s up to and he both parties seem almost nonplussed and amused when the truth comes to light. It’s an excellent mix of chilling and humorous.
Meanwhile, Monroe proves a perfect foil for David. She’s likeable, but impolite; the somewhat cynical, but never openly hostile doubter that needs to remind the audience that David’s story seems ridiculous and farfetched. She’s goal oriented; always the smartest person in the room and effectively the only person who can’t be brainwashed by David. Her scenes opposite Stevens, Meyer, and Lance Reddick (as an amusingly hardboiled government agent) are the biggest highlights in the film because she’s bringing out the best in whomever gets placed against her. It should also be said that Meyer and Stevens make a formidable team, with Meyer seemingly mastering the fine art of the surprised reaction.
The Guest is a blast from start to finish, and although its release has been delayed (and sadly scaled back) since the end of September, it’s actually great that the film comes out in time for Halloween when the film is actually set. It might not be the scariest film for the holiday, but for adult audiences that feel The Book of Life aims pretty low on their scale of seasonally appropriate fare, this will hit the sweet spot.