The shadow of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) looms large over Adam Winguard’s and Simon Barrett’s stylish and often amusing wanton killfest. Dan Stevens is wilfully cast against type as a menacing blue-eyed killing machine gone to ground in the home of a bereaved small-town family.
Directed by Adam Winguard / Written by Simon Barrett / Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelly, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick / Cinematography by Robby Baumgartner / Music by Steve Moore / Production by HanWay Films, Snoot Entertainment
One morning, Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelly) opens her front door to find David (Dan Stevens), a disarmingly handsome and polite young soldier, who claims to have known the Peterson family’s eldest son Caleb, who was recently killed in Afghanistan. Claiming to fulfil Caleb’s final wish that he check up on the family, David is invited to stay and soon insinuates himself into the Peterson family. Middle-child Anna (Maika Monroe) puts her doubts about David to one side after a good long look at his rippling torso. Anna’s socially awkward younger brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) is a victim of violent school bullies and David’s readiness to answer the bullies’ bravado with uncompromising violence buys him Luke’s trust and admiration. It seems that David has assigned himself the mission of solving each one of his host family’s problems and he certainly appears to be the archetypal knight in shining armour, one endowed with a very special set of skills. But give David a hammer and soon every problem looks like a nail.
Leaving Downton Abbey far behind him, British actor Dan Stevens officially arrives as a movie star with a natural and compelling screen presence, here communicating David’s psychopathic personality with just the right blend of charm, menace and cartoonishness. Stevens’ American accent has a tendency to turn good-ol’-boy style at odd intervals, which adds an appropriate quirk to the artificiality of the Person Suit that David wears. Watching David’s interactions with regular humans is exquisite, thanks to Steven’s impeccable manner and Winguard’s steady hand behind the camera. These interactions are never without an objective within David’s mission and every sentence and movement he delivers is like the turning of a screw or a careful incision during surgery. Sadly, speculation about David’s deeper psychological motivation is brain power wasted. David is a fascinating and hilarious character to observe and analyse but he is not put on screen to be examined; he is the centrepiece of a handsome genre exercise offering a post-mortem on the all-American action hero. As the tension mounts it becomes apparent that David is a thing let loose on civilian society, like a car with a brick jammed on the accelerator, and the reason why he chose to visit the Peterson family in particular is left for the audience to figure out and lend meaning to in their own time. If the luscious, colourful, gel-heavy lighting, slick contemporary synth score and carefully-staged action scenes don’t make it obvious, The Guest exists to be badass and provoke tweet-able thoughts rather than lengthy discussions. Its obvious contemporary, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), is a superior effort stylistically and intellectually.
Simon Barrett’s script scores highly for sharp dialogue but his lack of interest in exploring any of the themes inherent in the premise reveals the emotional bankruptcy of the film, whose cast are putting in a lot more effort than they need to. To hazard a guess at why this might be, one might argue that they were simply having too much fun not to give it 110%. The exuberance of Winguard’s and Barrett’s love for all things John Carpenter is infectious and maintains the film’s buoyancy. By the time the surviving players converge for the film’s denouement at the local high school’s haunted-house-themed dance, Winguard and Barrett are eager to hit play on their greatest hits mix-tape of slasher movie tropes. In spite of the expert craftsmanship of its first two acts, The Guest ends with the cinematic equivalent of a neatly arranged Tumblr blog. Fans of neatly arranged Tumblr blogs will find a great deal to enjoy about the film as a whole but where the seminal films that Winguard and Barrett clearly adore once expanded the social and emotional thematic scope of B-movies, The Guest merely uses social and emotional themes to cook up a nifty premise. That this stops just short of cheapening the film as a whole is a testament to the abundance of style on display, but Winguard and Barrett’s tounge-in-cheek self-awareness ultimately crosses all too easily into the realm of the self-absorbed.