The Guest

****

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Maika Monroe in The Guest
"Slick, tense, darkly funny and very genre-aware."

Starting the Frightfest 2014 Film Festival at full throttle, director Adam Wingard and regular collaborator and writer Simon Barrett serve up a slick, tense, darkly funny and very genre-aware thriller with The Guest. Having done their time in the horror trenches with A Horrible Way To Die (2010) and the well-received recent home invasion thriller You’re Next (2011), they have created what feels like the assured outcome of that all prep work.

The plot, nicely reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (and, as some film experts have suggested due to The Guest’s tag line, French thriller Harry, He’s Here To Help), sees a young soldier called David Collins (Downtown Abbey’s Dan Stevens - a deliciously perverse casting choice) arriving unannounced at the door of the home of the grieving Peterson family. The Petersons are yet to recover from the recent news that their son Caleb was killed in Iraq. David, strikingly good-looking, toned and possessed of an unrelenting Southern-fried politeness, claims to be a comrade of their son from the same unit. He says he wants only to pay his respects to the family, and pass on the last requests of Caleb. His charm and connection to their son prove too strong for the senior Petersons to resist, and they welcome him into their home. As with Hitchcock’s thriller, it is only the young daughter, in this case 20-year old Anna (Maika Monroe, who is making a name for herself in the horror field, with It Follows currently paying festivals) who senses right away that David might not be who he says he is.

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Before long, Anna’s suspicions start to build, even as David seems to have the family wrapped around his finger. Her brother Luke sees him as a guardian angel who can help take the local jock bullies off his back at school, an easy feat given his awesome military prowess. Anna’s girlfriends squirm at the sight of this buff, steely-eyed figure when David escorts her to a house party. People who have stood in the way of the Petersons' success start mysteriously dying too. David seems to be ‘just here to help’, but Anna isn't quite sure that this stranger's notion of 'help' is what her family imagines it really is.

As we watch Anna getting closer and closer to David’s secret, the filmmakers lay out a hearty spread of homages to thrillers and horror films of yesteryea. The small rural town setting, a high school complete with lockers (and jocks waiting to punch Luke into them), the introductory salacious shot of Anna in skimpy panties on her bed, the upcoming Halloween party which becomes the setting of the final showdown, all scream John Carpenter. Wingard and Barrat have spoken about their desire to make The Guest a repository of their nostalgia, which they went about by way of fusing a soldier returns home story that Barratt was mulling over with Wingard’s desire to make "The Terminator meets Halloween". Fans will no doubt delight at totting up all the genre markers, right down to little details like David’s limp during The Guest’s finale being a loving nod to the battle-damage the Terminator cyborg receives in Cameron’s film’s final act (I asked Wingard about this in person, and he confirmed the reference). The catchy, synth-based score also showcases the filmmaker’s love of the music from Cameron’s sci-fi action film, as well as Halloween III: Season Of The Witch.

Barrett and Wingard have a lot of fun playing with and honouring the genre tropes as they build up viewer expectations of the explosion that will surely occur once Anna pokes the final hole in David’s past. In one delightfully funny and violent sequence, Dan humiliates the bullies that are making Luke's life hell by buying them a round of Cosmopolitans so as to burn their sense of masculinity, and the resulting bar fight that swiftly occurs takes in a fiery tabasco-heavy cocktail to the face, and some judicious use of a pool cue, but avoids the kind of drawn-out fistfights common to action films, as David take all his foes down with some vicious whipcrack-fast blows that send the recipients to the floor in one shot. This tight, quick framing of flamboyant on-screen violence, as opposed to drenching the screen with gore, is just one of the pleasing ways Wingard and company tweak expectations while also satisfying them. It also showcases how technically proficient they have become at action set-pieces.

Some of the strongest moments occur in the set pieces, where the action rides in the saddle with knowing humour, though the film is never completely silly or over-saturated in the references to other cult films; this is not a parody. One well-staged gun battle in the film’s second half is kickstarted when a laundry sheet blowing in the wind in slow motion reveals David to his heavily armed attackers - and us - but he is holding a laundry basket of all things, instead of the expected John Woo-style dual pistols. It’s funny, and when the slow-motion assisted bullet ballet does indeed kick off, that too is viscerally pleasing without ever feeling too exaggerated. Compare this to The Expendables 3 and the previous films in that increasingly dull franchise, another set of homages playing on memories of the action films of yesteryear, but which are increasingly parodies with mind-numbingly long (yet CGI-sanitised) action sequences that are strangely forgettable. The Guest does it so much better, and even works into its action-thriller plot some commentary on the unseen shame of America’s war on terror: the effects of this unending war on the young men who serve.

The Guest is tightly paced, technically sharp, packed with loving respect to its forebears, and allows star Dan Stevens to show off a winning, wolf-like charisma to match his action abilities. Frightfest chose their launch film well this year.

Reviewed on: 24 Aug 2014
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The Guest packshot
A man inveigles his way into a family home by saying he is a friend of a dead soldier.
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