An electronic bellow and a flash of the title in gigantic, purple-on-black letters announces the arrival of The Guest: David, played by former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens. With the smouldering, intense stare and sculpted physique of a Diet Coke bloke, David knocks on the door of the Peterson household one sunny afternoon, and quickly charms his way into their humdrum lives.
Mother of three Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) is still grieving over the loss of her son Caleb, who died while fighting in Afghanistan. So when David tells Laura that he served with Caleb and wanted to drop by to pay his respects, it’s easy to see why she’d be so keen to invite him to stay over for a couple of days. Laura’s boozy husband Spencer (Leland Orser), 20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) and teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) are less easily swayed, but as David beguiles each of them in turn, he soon becomes another member of the family.
To say that David isn’t all he seems isn’t a spoiler: right from the opening shot of David running down a lonely road, intercut with the ominous title font, The Guest is relentlessly self-aware. Unlike so many post-Hitchcock thrillers, The Guest doesn’t pretend that it exists in a vacuum; director Adam Wingard makes no secret of David’s sinister undercurrent, and playfully lets us observe the dark look in his eyes that the rest of the family keep missing.
The Guest constantly throws in references to other films of the 70s and 80s, from Enter The Dragon to Halloween III, and riffs on some of the plot points and set-ups of Hitchcock’s classic Shadow Of A Doubt. The result is a bit like Park Chan-Wook’s English-language debut Stoker, albeit shot through an ironic, hip and post-modern filter of electronic music, mobile phones and abrupt jabs of violence.
The suspense in The Guest comes not from the question as to whether or not David is evil or not, but what kind of evil he might represent. There’s a nicely staged, early moment where David confronts some school bullies in a local bar, and his nice-guy mask starts to slip. Just how crazy is David, really?
Dan Stevens is great value as the title character, and conveys both charm and menace with little more than the tilt of his head or the flutter of his eyelids. In an unapologetically brash film, it’s a necessarily stylised but also quite subtle performance. The brilliance of the casting is exemplified in the scene where David first meets the smart yet reclusive youngest son, Luke. They sit it a dining table and simply stare at one another, Luke with distrust at the stranger in his home, David calculatedly studying the bruise on the boy’s cheek. We can almost hear the cogs whirring in David’s head: the bruise was clearly caused by a school bully. How can I use this information to my advantage?
A Shadow Of A Doubt-style thriller requires at least one character who’s insightful enough to spot the evil in the family’s midst, and in The Guest, it’s Maika Monroe’s sarcastic, impatient Anna. Again, Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (who last collaborated on the entertainingly black horror You’re Next) seem to enjoy playing within the conventions of the thriller genre, and presenting us with situations we’ve seen before, but in a slightly askew and uneasy fashion.
Your mileage may vary with The Guest’s second half, which starts to answer more questions about David’s past which we won’t spoil here. For this writer, the revelations diminished, rather than added, to the tension built up in the first 40-or-so minutes. Identities and agendas aren’t the most interesting thing in The Guest in any case; instead, the film’s at its best when David’s simply wandering around the Peterson’s small, buttoned-down rural town and quietly (or sometimes violently) manipulating the local populace.
Like You’re Next, The Guest enjoys the process of turning the trappings of middle-class life upside-down. The main take-away from You’re Next was that a home invasion from psychotic murderers was infinitely preferable to the tedium of a family dinner. In The Guest, we get the sense that David, for better or worse, is the most interesting thing to happen to its fictional small town in years.
There may also be something in here about our tendency to be swayed by surface appearance. David passes himself off as the perfect American: a brave war veteran who could also model for Abercrombie & Fitch. Even as the layers of his mania are peeled away, we can’t help admiring him just a little, and therein lies the thrill in this endearingly retro genre film.
The Guest is out on DVD & Blu-ray on the 29th December.
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