Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett traffic in playful homage and neat subversion of other horror movies. Their 2011 low-budget collaboration You’re Next combined elements of home invasion and slasher flicks with an in-joke sensibility – a mumblecore Scream. With 2014’s The Guest, they went full-on John Carpenter, layering on the mounting dread and the insistent synth score, while drawing liberally (or borrowing wholesale) from the plot of The Stepfather and similar “who are you really?” thrillers.
It’s a ridiculously fun ride, with an over-the-top central performance by unnervingly blue-eyed Dan Stevens and a climax in a Halloween haunted funhouse. What more do you want? Ok, maybe a resolution a bit less silly, but this is a popcorn movie after all, not Persona. I liked their previous outing very much, but The Guest is a sleeker, smarter, scarier, and funnier movie.
We meet most of the Peterson family at home in the morning, preparing for the day. Dad Spencer is taking son Luke off to school, and mom Laura is left alone to stare sadly at a picture on the mantel of her eldest Caleb, in uniform, with a plaque reading “All gave some, some gave all.”
Almost immediately, a knock on the door brings David (Stevens), who introduces himself as having served alongside Caleb. He certainly looks the part: extremely fit, carrying himself with a soldier’s rigor, addressing everyone as “m’aam” and “sir,” unfailingly polite and disciplined. He’s even in the group picture on the mantel, and says he was with Caleb when he died, who asked him to check on the family, convey his love, make sure everything is alright. Laura excuses herself and breaks down in sobs in the other room. In her grief, it must feel like a miracle, a greeting from beyond that she couldn’t have hoped for, and she wants to know everything.
Daughter Anna is more skeptical, and when Spencer returns from work to find that his wife has not only been hanging around the house with this complete stranger all day but has offered to house him while he’s in town, he’s angry at first. But shortly, he and David end up bonding too, staying up late drinking beer while Spencer confides in him about his struggles at work and other things it seems he has no one to talk to about.
David quickly insinuates himself into the Peterson’s. He’s everything to everyone: a solace to a grieving mom, a drinking buddy to a frustrated dad, a protector and alpha male role model to nerdy, bullied Luke, and an object of desire to Anna. There are frequent indications that something is off here, but the characters’ motivations all make sense, and they want to hold off on questioning things as long as possible.
Similarly, Wingard and Barrett hold off through most of the film on the Big Reveal, amping up the tension as much as possible and leaving things ambiguous – a very good choice, since that reveal ends up being underwhelming when it comes. But the atmospherics, Carpenterisms, and performances more than make up for that.
Stevens carries the film: his ice blue eyes are used to hilariously eerie effect, and he perfectly suggests both reassurance and threat, conveying several different possibilities even over the course of a scene. I know nothing of Downton Abbey, the series for which he’s known, so to me this is a breakout role. (Also, I somehow doubt he’s such a brutal ass-kicker on Downton Abbey, unless I’ve seriously misunderstood what that show is about.) The Guest is a memorable role for him, and a big step up for Wingard and Barrett.