The Guest Dir. Adam Wingard

[Picturehouse; 2014]

Styles: horror, thriller, war
Others: You’re Next

If you stripped out the best elements of John Carpenter’s Halloween films, blended them with the best moments of Terminator, took the result and shot it through a neon-tinged 1980s canon — all while adding one of the best soundtracks of the year — well, you pretty much get The Guest. It’s dark, sexy, and fun — the kind of movie that begs to be watched with a group of friends.

David (Dan Stevens, in a perfect post-Downton Abbey role) has just returned home from Afghanistan. At the bequest of his friend and fallen comrade Caleb Peterson, he stops into a small New Mexico town to check on the family. From the very first line of dialog (“Mrs. Peterson? My name is David.”) the film packs a punch filled with a heavy dose of mystery and intrigue, never quite letting on to the secrets behind David’s sly smile until the final credits. And despite the stylish atmosphere of the film that oozes pure cool, it’s the acting here that really stands out. Every little glance and half smile from David has us questioning his motives and his background. It’s this unease that makes him such an intriguing villain (or is he?). On one hand he seems to genuinely want to help the Peterson family — early in the film he takes care of a bullying problem plaguing young Luke Peterson (Brendan Meyer) — but on the other, there are gaps in his past, and it’s these unanswered questions that don’t sit well with Caleb’s sister, Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe, one of the Toronto International Film Festival’s breakout stars and the lead in the excellent horror movie It Follows, set to be released in 2015). Anna is caught between fantasizing about the new Peterson houseguest (the mix tape she makes David becomes one of the pivotal musical backdrops for the film) and searching deeper into his unexplained past. It is this relationship that is the focal point of the film as David effortlessly slides between polite family helper to potentially sinister figure and it’s a performance that defines and carries the film. It may not be a performance that wins awards come March, but Dan Stevens finds a balance here to make the character simultaneously appalling and appealing, something few actors could do in this role.

The Guest was written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard (the duo behind the equally excellent genre piece, You’re Next) who are cinematic cousins of sorts to Nicolas Winding Refn, that Danish master of sudden, unexpected violence, weirdness, and magical realism. Theirs is a cinema steeped in references, but it works on multiple levels providing fun for the casual viewer and cinephile alike. And while The Guest is a hell of a lot of fun, it raises interesting questions about nostalgia and our obsession with the past. These filmmakers obviously have a love of the horror movies and thrillers from their younger years — you could easily pull out a hodgepodge of elements from every scene and relate them back to any number of films from the 1980s. And the soundtrack is very much of the times, which when you really stop and think about it strangely means it is filled with synth and sounds that are completely influenced by the past. This is a film that exists in a liminal space — its images, acting and sounds completely new and refreshing, yet could not exist without the influence of history. Film, perhaps more than any other entertainment medium and art form, is able to tie us to, but simultaneously learn from and update, the past. But it is a hard thing to pull off in any form, even given the advantages of film with its audiovisual combination able to work multiple senses at once. As of late, Chromeo seems to pull it off seamlessly in the music world and with The Guest, Barrett and Wingard are the leading contenders of this new-yet-old style in the cinematic realm.

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