The Guest (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Adam Wingard

The Guest has so many familiar elements of VHS-era classics that it’s a wonder the end product feels as fresh and vibrant as it does. Credit writer-director team Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, as they strike gold in their third collaboration together (after 2010’s mumblecore horror pic A Horrible Way to Die and 2011’s clever slasher You’re Next) and transcend 80’s fetishism to create an entirely new beast that’ll have midnight audiences cheering.

The film opens with David (British actor Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey) arriving at the Peterson homestead while claiming to be a fellow soldier of their late son Kaleb. Mother Laura (Sheila Kelley) is quick to warm to this surrogate son and invites him to stay in Kaleb’s old room. Father Spencer (Leland Orser) is hesitant at first, but soon finds in David a drinking buddy with a sympathetic ear to his failed career ambitions. Well ingratiated into the family, David soon stands up to bullies who have been terrorizing teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) in a raucous barroom confrontation that combines humour and tension to great effect. It’s only the requisite older daughter Anna (Maika Munroe, providing dimension and heart) who harbours suspicions about David’s true intent which – of course – no one believes.

What seems like a fairly rote set-up for a thriller is livened by many disparate elements that come together to make The Guest fun and memorable in ways that so many similar films fail to achieve. The autumnal setting evokes John Carpenter and his Halloween series, while David’s single-mindedness is a clear nod to The Terminator (both films that Wingard himself has mentioned as inspirations). If David’s a Terminator, then he’s one with an all-American smile who hides his psychosis behind a charm offensive. Stevens is a marvel in the role, letting his warm façade slip ever so slightly at first to hint at what dark intentions may lurk beneath. In many scenes he walks a razor’s edge while balancing smiling menace and gleeful amorality. Stevens manages to avoid going too broad while making the audience root for David despite the fact that he’s, you know, possibly evil to the core.

Featuring a neon aesthetic and a pounding and well curated synth score*, The Guest may draw comparisons to Drive. However, The Guest eschews Drive’s finely constructed artfulness in favour of baser instincts. There’s even some social commentary layered in (as the best genre pics are wont to do). David has been changed by the war and he’s not able to integrate back into society. The Peterson’s are looking to heal the open wounds of their loss, and they see in David a new beginning. The allegory may not line up exactly, but the notion towards political relevance is well-founded and welcome.

The Guest has an insistent aim to please, and despite some shaky supporting performances and a noticeably low budget, it ably delivers. It’s bold and brash, idiosyncratic in the right ways, and aiming straight for the pleasure centres of your brain. If you’d seen this movie at the right age and in the right circumstances – say at 12 years old and late at night on a purloined VHS copy – then it might imprint itself as your favourite movie ever. As a jaded 31 year old, I still think it’s very good. Let The Guest in, and let the mayhem begin.

*With any luck, it’ll garner at least as much notice as Drive‘s similarly fantastic soundtrack. It must be heard.

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