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My 12 for ’14: The Guest and a Halloween Christmas Movie…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

2014 was a spectacular year for genre work. Perhaps emboldened by the success of genre fare (shared universes! talking apes! killer racoons!) in the summer movie season over the past number of years, it seemed like both major and minor studios were more willing to play with concepts that could easily seem absurd or throwaway.

’71 blended its historical real-world setting with the claustrophobia one might expect to find in horror thriller – a zombie movie set in seventies Belfast. The Babadook is a awards-caliber study of disillusioned parenthood that just happens to use the language of a supernatural horror. Birdman is a blistering Hollywood satire and character study driven by imagery and iconography more traditionally associated with fantasy. There has always been genre overlap, but it seemed particularly pronounced this year.

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The Guest revels in its pulpy nature, offering a gleefully absurd intersection of a classic slasher movie with a more traditional holiday fare. The story of a mysterious visitor who moves in with the family of a deceased soldier, The Guest is wry and quick-witted, subversive and cheeky in equal measure. Anchored by a script from Simon Barrett that refuses to pull any punches, razor-sharp direction from Adam Wingard and a superb central performance from Dan Stevens, The Guest is a pure pulpy pleasure.

In many respects, The Guest feels like what would happen if you asked John Carpenter to make a Christmas movie. Only set at Halloween.

Flying the flag...

Flying the flag…

John Carpenter’s influence is quite clear here, permeating every level of The Guest. Adam Wingard’s direction has the same cold edge to it. Steve Moore’s synthetic score evokes the soundtrack stylings of Carpenter’s seventies shockers. Lance Reddick even steps into the role associated with Donald Pleasance in Halloween, the vaguely creepy bald man allied with the teenage protagonist while chasing a force of nature. There is a sense that Wingard and Barrett have a deep and abiding affection for Carpenter and his filmography.

The film’s Halloween setting is perhaps an overt nod to the cult director, but it also provides one of the most interesting aspects of The Guest. This is very much a holiday film. Many of the trappings feel like they belong in a Lifetime made-for-television movie. There is a family struggling to come to terms with the loss of the eldest child. There is a father stuck in a dead-end job; a son who is bullied at school; a daughter struggling to decide what to do with her life. At that point, a mysterious stranger shows up, claiming to have served with the family’s deceased son. And, gradually, he begins to improve their lives.

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The Guest is a delicious skewering of those sort of feel-good family holiday movie clichés. The mysterious “David” ensures that Spencer Peterson gets his long-overdue promotion by brutally murdering the incumbent. He helps Luke Peterson deal with his bullies by staging an incredibly brutal bar fight. If that doesn’t scare them off, David suggests, Luke could always burn their houses down while their families are sleeping. People don’t tend to bully you after that sort of response.

Wingard and Barrett practically revel in the movie’s trashy tone. The movie brilliantly and repeatedly avoids opportunities to humanise David, who quickly reveals himself to be an amoral killing machine. It is quickly revealed that he is a fugitive running from a secret experiment; however, it is also revealed that David was responsible for a fire that killed dozens of other soldiers as part of his escape. For all that David tries to help the Peterson family in his own way, he is a completely ruthless and remorseless killing machine.

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The Guest enjoys its own absurdity. Apparently the Peterson family live in a small community where the local school has tens of thousands of dollars to spend constructing a haunted house that would work really well at the climax of a slasher film. The characters remain blissfully oblivious to the strange string of horrific “accidents” that conveniently correspond with David’s arrival. Wingard switches genres effortlessly, transitioning from black comedy to slasher horror to hilariously over-the-top action at the drop of the hat.

The Guest has a tremendous and irresistible energy, offering some of the year’s most enjoyable and exciting tricks… and, er, treats.

You might be interested in the rest of our countdown:

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