The genre-loving writer/director team of Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard have gradually been easing themselves into the status of the best horror filmmakers of their generation and The Guest only confirms that title, while also pushing their style into other genres. Their partnership started with the brutal serial killer move A Horrible Way To Die before peaking with their brilliant and darkly comedic home invasion picture You’re Next. That movie inexplicably sat on a shelf awaiting release for almost two years and in the middle, they created the popular anthology horror franchise V/H/S. Now we have The Guest, which nimbly mixes all of their 80s genre movie influences into a horror/action/thriller/comedy cocktail that feels like it could have come out of Cannon Films if that company had any sense of irony. It’s a fantastically entertaining movie that might not pack the highest scare count of any of this year’s Halloween horror movie releases, but is certainly the best genre movie hitting screens just in time for the spooktacular holiday.
Dan Stevens stars as a mysterious Iraq War veteran who has returned to American soil. The audience gets no sense of who he is initially, discovering along with a family who he pops in on. He claims that he fought alongside of the family’s dead-in-combat son, and quickly makes friends with the whole clan through his almost creepily kind ways. For mommy (Sheila Kelly) he provides comforting stories of the lost son, for daddy (Leland Orser) he’s a drinking buddy happy to listen to every dreary complaint, for the teen boy (Bendan Meyer) he’s an older brother figure with a knack for punishing bullies, and for the skeptical teen girl (Maika Monroe) he’s a shirt-optional beefcake who is really interested in her music suggestions. Everyone is weirded out by Stevens at first, yet soon he’s part of the family. However, that weirdness returns with a vengeance when people who the family know and dislike start dying and smiling Stevens seems to disappear at oddly inappropriate times.
First off, it has to be said that the movie could never possibly work without Dan Stevens. He delivers a performance so good for such a tricky character that he’s as much an author of the movie as Wingard and Barrett. Stevens never tips the hat of his threatening backstory, instead going the opposite direction of playing an impossibly nice guy. Though his character is all smiles and compliments, there’s something in his eyes suggesting something is wrong from the second he appears on screen. When the time comes for Stevens to be a threat, he delivers. Yet most of the time, his performance is a subtly hilarious portrayal of a guy too perfect to be true (a scene of him carrying two kegs at once is one of the funniest sights to appear in any movie this year in context). The rest of the cast are quite strong as well, particularly Orser (who you’ll know best from a particularly stressed performance in Se7en) and budding genre starlet Monroe. Much of that can be attributed to Barrett and Wingard, who are amongst a select group of horror filmmakers today whose movies are character-driven above and beyond the spectacle. Barrett serve up great roles for actors in genre fare and Wingard knows just how to cast their parts and let his actors fly.
Beyond the performances, The Guest is a pretty ingeniously structured piece of entertainment. The filmmakers clearly pulled their influences out of 80s genre movies that combined action, horror, and thriller tropes into a ridiculously enjoyable blend. They also tip their hats to that era with a glorious synth soundtrack lovingly ripped from the John Carpenter playbook as well as some delightfully tacky neon production design. Beyond the references, the movie effortlessly hops from one genre and tone to the next without ever feeling uneven. Barrett and Wingard keep audiences unbalanced while still sticking to a singularly detached and comedic tone that is very similar to the one they found in You’re Next. The duo even slip in a little social commentary about America’s irrational war-loving ways without ever detracting from the fun. It would be easy to watch The Guest as pure genre entertainment and certainly there’s plenty of that on display. Yet for those viewers attuned to the various levels that the filmmakers are working on the film is also something a little more.
The Guest firmly establishes the Barrett and Wingard team as two smartypants filmmakers with talent and brains to spare who are also consummate entertainers. Yet, while the movie will certainly give horror fans plenty to hoot n’ holler about, the genre-bender also suggests though duo might stretch their wings outside of giving viewers the willies. While it would be a shame to see them abandon horror entirely, it would be nice to see what else they try since the pair are clearly movie-drunk and filled with influences. The Guest might not quite match the manic intensity and cracked genius of You’re Next, but it comes close enough to prove that movie was no fluke. These guys are amongst the most exciting genre directors kicking around Hollywood right now, and with their studio filmmaking debut locked in as a remake of the intensely disturbing Korean revenge movie I Saw The Devil, it’s unlikely that will change any time soon. Let’s hope they don’t get crushed by the studio machine as they deservingly climb through the ranks.