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Non-Review Review: The Guest

The Guest is a pulpy delight. It’s a glorious throwback to classic seventies horror, with writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingart perfectly channeling the mood and feel of classic seventies exploitation films. It’s affectionate and unapologetic. It is gleeful and grim. It is darkly hilarious and also brutally pulpy. The Guest is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and accomplishes that with great skill.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

This nostalgic charm permeates every aspect of the film’s production. Even the titlecard, aggressively flashing up a few seconds into the film after a shot of the eponymous visitor jogging down the road, feels like something pulled from some lost seventies b-movie. The music – both the original score by Steve Moore and the songs selected by the film’s music department – have a synth-heavy feeling that cannot help but evoke John Carpenter’s classic scores to his own horror films.

Carpenter feels like something of a major influence on Barrett and Wingart. There are a few plot similarities with some of Carpenter’s most iconic works, and a couple of shared themes. The film’s Halloween setting feels like a cute nod to the John Carpenter movie from which it borrows most heavily. Lance Reddick plays a character who seems like a tribute to Donald Pleasance’s iconic Doctor Loomis, the grown-up outsider who initially seems quite ambiguous, but is revealed to have a much better idea of what is going on than anybody else caught up in the story.

Flying the flag...

Flying the flag…

(Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, The Guest shares its title with the 1963 film adaptation of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. That film featured Donald Pleasance as a tramp who moves in with two brothers and winds up causing no small amount of trouble. While Barrett and Wingart are not drawing overtly from Pinter’s popular stage-play, there is some thematic overlap. It is not impossible that there’s an intentional reference there.)

However, a large part of the thrill of The Guest is the surreal juxtaposition at the heart of the movie. The plot feels like something of a twisted Hallmark Christmas movie. The grieving Peterson’s family are struggling to cope with the death of their son, who gave his life in service of his country. The death has taken its toll. Mr. and Mrs. Peterson find themselves fighting more and more, little Luke is bullied at school, and Anna with a boyfriend who refuses to grow up as she faces college.

Packing it in...

Packing it in…

Out of nowhere, a visitor shows up. Knocking on the door, having jogged all the way from the bus station, David claims to have been a friend of their son. He promised that he would check in on the Peterson family, and that he would look out for them – that he would tell each and every one of them that they were loved. There’s something a little odd about David, but he just got out of hospital. “He probably has the PTSD,” Mr. Peterson speculates. David has no idea where he’s going himself, but it is quickly clear that his presence is good for this struggling family.

Moving into his friend’s old room, David does his best to support the family. He provides a supportive ear for Mr. Peterson, who grumbles about the work troubles caused by his lack of a college degree; he offers advice to Luke about his problems at school; he carries kegs at a party that Anna attends; he even helps Mrs. Peterson hang up the washing. Before anybody knows what is happening, the family seems to enjoy a change in circumstances. Things begin to look better. Things are coming together, and it seems that the mysterious stranger may have had something to do with it.

Hot shot...

Hot shot…

There is a sense that David is, in his own small way, helping the Peterson family come together and function again as the holidays approach. It is enough to warm the heart. It’s not too difficult to reimagine the broad strokes of The Guest as some sort of dysfunctional feel-good family holiday film. The joy is in how Barrett and Wingart twist that set-up, starting with small tweaks and gradually amping up the sense of unreality, pushing it to breaking point. It turns out this is not a Christmas movie, it is a Halloween film.

The Guest never takes itself too seriously, and that is the movie’s greatest strength. The movie’s climax involves a “Halloween Dance” at the local high school which seems to operate not only on an impressive budget for a school like this, but which also reckless flouts fire safety regulations in order to provide a suspenseful climax. (Their prom must be killer.) It is absurd, but the movie acknowledges and embraces that absurdity. Faced with this convenient plot convolution, Lance Reddick’s Carver deadpans, “What the hell is this?”

Keep your shirt on!

Keep your shirt on!

Dan Stevens does great work as David, playing a mysterious figure who seems too eager to help and too good to be true, while seeming just a little bit off. While helping Luke to hallow out a pumpkin, he reflects, “Your parents have some really sh!tty knives.” He seems just a little bit too comfortable with violence. He holds everything like it is a weapon just waiting to be used. It would be easy to play David as a psychopath hiding behind a pleasant exterior, but Stevens does something more interesting. He suggests that even David isn’t sure where the good guy ends and the bad guy begins.

It’s a very clever approach to the character, and one that works very well. It allows the film to derive some wonderfully dark laughs from the tonal dissonance, as Stevens shifts from genuinely friendly and concerned to ruthless and aggressive and then back again, while seeming entirely genuine. It also invites the audience to both pity him and fear him, putting David in the strange position of existing half-way between the film’s protagonist and its antagonist. He is both innocent and terrifying, often in the course of the same scene.

Keep on truckin'...

Keep on truckin’…

Stevens holds the movie together, easing the film’s strange tonal transitions from heartwarming family drama to black comedy to potential horror film. He is assisted by a delightfully cult ensemble. Maika Monroe is suitably charming as the film’s secondary lead, while Barrett and Wingart bulk up the supporting cast with recognisable actors like Leland Orser, Lance Reddick and Sheila Kelley rounding out the film.

The Guest is a joy from start to finish.

2 Responses

  1. Looking forward to seeing this one!

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