I was first introduced to director (and editor) Adam Wingard and writer-producer Simon Barrett’s sublime collaborations with You’re Next, an awesome send up and salute to home invasion horror movies. Nothing about that was a fluke, as I think I had even more fun while watching The Guest. The Wingard/Barrett combination has quickly entered must-watch territory. This is where I’m contractually obligated to wish/hope/recommend Hollywood to tab them as directors on massive blockbusters (can you imagine them doing Ghost Rider or Blade?), but instead, I want Wingard and Barrett to keep doing what they’re doing. And that’s making movies inspired by the ones they grew up on, which are primarily gritty, 1970’s and 80’s sci-fi/horror movies, like The Terminator and Halloween. Combine brilliant casting, a keen eye for genre (and its plastic qualities), its history, with a fresh, creative and friggin’ funny perspective, and you have a thrilling, hilarious and enlivening experience at the theatre that begets overly complimentary run-on sentences.
The Guest opens quickly, forcefully, with David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, more on the living embodiment of charisma later) ringing the doorbell of the Peterson family’s home. David served in Iraq with Caleb, the family’s prodigal son who never returned. David was his best friend, was with Caleb when he died, and promised to let every one of his family know how much Caleb loved them, personally. Because of his Southern charm and piercing eyes, it’s not long before Laura (Matchstick Men’s Sheila Kelley) has invited him to stay. Spencer (Se7en’s Leland Orser), her unhappy husband, clearly takes issue, but before long he’s urging David to stay longer over a few beers. David continually says he doesn’t want to put them out, but that’s exactly what he wants. This guest will overstay his welcome; the movie won’t.
In the wake of Caleb’s death, every one of the family has problems. Laura is lonely, depressed and miserable over her eldest son’s passing. David fills that void, a tether to the past. Spencer is a drunk who can’t get a promotion at work. Anna (Labor Day’s talented Maika Monroe, who’s like a less annoying Kat Dennings) keeps arguing with her stoner boyfriend Zeke (John Dies At The End’s Chase Williamson) and wastes her evenings at a dead-end diner job. Luke (Mr. Young’s Brendan Meyer) has no friends and is bullied at school by the kinds of bullies who only exist in movies.
With each of them, David finds a way to help them, in a way only a psychopathic, vigilante badass can. Watching David deal with Luke’s over-the-top bullies, and teach Luke how to deal with them himself, is particularly cathartic, and disturbingly hilarious. David’s tactics, no surprise here, involves a whole bunch of violence, while making fun of and referencing the many movies that have come before it. Throw in a pitch perfect appearance from Fringe’s Lance Reddick, playing off his persona and striking appearance, and The Guest has it all.
I love pretty much everything about The Guest: its dark and cheesy sense of humor, the oftentimes simultaneous malevolent and beneficent glint in star Dan Stevens’ eyes, the John Carpenter-ian score from Zombi’s Steve Moore (I’m writing this review to the Halloween soundtrack in lieu of The Guest), its ingenious and thrilling action, and its many nods, winks and parodies of the action, thriller and sci-fi genres.
Too often, movies are squashed into genre’s constraints, or are forced to conform to what we imagine a romantic comedy to be, or an action movie, and so on. Wingard and Barrett take it all with a grain of salt; genre exists to be played with, to mangle, to combine, to subvert audience’s expectations. When Anna impatiently knocks on the bathroom door, expecting her doughy brother to pop out, and steam erupts from the door frame and a glistening, ripped Dan Stevens pops out, we laugh at the teen romance stereotype (and the “Whoa” moment) that doubles as a star-is-born moment. Or it damn well better be. Dan Stevens owns every frame of this movie, his presence felt even more sharply when he’s absent. I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, so I had no preconceived notions of Dan Stevens, but this movie showcases an ability to thrive as a romantic lead, a funnyman, an action hero and a villain, all at once. It’s a great role that Stevens doesn’t waste. Unlike the titular character, I hope casting directors invite Dan Stevens inside…whatever movie he wants. The same goes for filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett; these are guests I hope stay for a long time.