This is a guest post by Horror Fighter.
As a director, Adam Wingard and his collaborations with writer Simon Barrett have grown on me. I hated “A Horrible Way to Die.” (Don’t get me wrong; I loved the plot and the cast, I just despised every shot in the film.) However, I really enjoyed their work with “You’re Next”, I liked their contributions to the first two “V/H/S” films, and I thought their segment of “ABCs of Death” was one of the few that actually showed an understanding and appreciation of the anthology’s conceit.
Wingard and Barrett are also part of the Ti West/AJ Bowen/Joe Swanberg generation (all frequent collaborators) that continues to give me hope for horror’s future.
So when I saw that The Guest (directed by Wingard, written by Barrett) was trending on Netflix, I bumped it straight to the top of my must-watch list. And I’m leaning toward a recommendation, but…
Let’s start with the source material. Nothing new here. Much of the plot progresses predictably. The minute you see the son in school, you know he’s a bully target. You also know right away that the titular guest, David (or “David,” as he’s called in the credits), is going to teach those young punks a lesson. And you know the daughter is going to have a crush on him, before learning the horrible truth. And you know the knife is foreshadowing. And… on and on it goes, right up to the “saw it coming a mile away/let’s leave it open for a sequel” final shot.
The twist is trite. (What, you mean the guest isn’t what he seems? He’s part of some secret military/corporate experiment that goes wrong and must be covered up? Wow, how could I possibly prepare for all those surprising developments? How can I manage to sound like a sarcastic dick in a few parenthetical sentences?)
The twist is also lazily explained. The always fantastic Lance Reddick shows up in a lesser role– as a military police officer– and he gives a couple of hasty lines about “medical subject who escaped, yada, yada.” However, this flimsy exposition feels tacked on and doesn’t provide any background that viewers can’t assume themselves.
To be fair: After exhaustive research (OK, I skimmed Wikipedia) I discovered that the first cut of the film did include more information about “David,” but Wingard, Barrett and test audiences all hated it. They preferred ambiguity. I say that it’s lame. But, that’s just me I guess.
Another issue: the film pushes the boundaries of plausibility. It’s hard to believe that a young brother and sister manage to achieve more success than an entire experienced squad of heavily armed mercenaries. Granted, that’s the type of suspension of disbelief any film might demand, but again, it’s hardly original. It’s another moment easy to guess before it occurs.
I suppose it sounds like I hated the film. But I didn’t. The film actually manages to elevate itself above its shortcomings. And there are admirably clever moments. I particularly enjoyed the scene where the tables are turned on the school’s principal — using his own system against him. No violence. Just brilliant manipulation delivered with a smile.
Wingard directs with absolute confidence here, and as he did in “You’re Next”, proves himself very skilled at staging action scenes. Some of the hand-to-hand fights explode and end almost before they begin, and they have an incredibly visceral impact.
Likewise, the cast members successfully breathe life into their clichéd characters, giving them an unexpected — and wholly welcomed — gravitas. The mourning mother; distant, heavy-drinking father; jerk boyfriend; all standard film archetypes, but nobody dials in a performance.
Barrett’s script deserves credit here for fleshing out normally cookie-cutter characters. You believe these people exist, and, by extension, you invest emotionally in them, and this connection makes it easy for the audience to care about them.
You also can sense the despair that is eating at the family; the loss that they feel over the death of their son/brother, Caleb.
And it’s this overarching sorrow that makes the guest’s visit more sinister, as he claims to be a friend who served in the army with Caleb. Initial suspicions of his motives melt away when he becomes a valued member of the family dynamic, filling a void left by Caleb. And while we learn later that this ingratiation was never intentionally harmful, it does come with a price.
Dan Stevens is especially impressive in the lead role as the guest, lending a quiet menace to his scenes. With a soft look, friendly smile and low voice, he still somehow manages to convey the inner violence that David (sorry…”David”) carries.
Or maybe Stevens was mediocre and I just got lost in his dreaminess, drifting away on the ocean of his limpid blue eyes. *sigh*
Sorry, what was I talking about?
Oh. Yeah. “The Guest.”
So, is “The Guest” a horror film?
Yes, the main character can be scary, and bad things happen to good people.
The film is set during Halloween season, so we get lots of spooky decorations, pumpkin carving and a school dance with a haunted maze that characters must stumble through in the final act in order to escape danger. All of that gives “The Guest” some horror elements indirectly, but overall, it’s more of an action/sci-fi film in the same sense that the Bourne movies were action/sci-fi flicks.
If you’re expecting a horror movie, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re looking for an original premise, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you can appreciate a finely crafted film with believable characters and a certain level of dread, you’ll be entertained. As I was.
Still on the fence? Then here’s a final observation that may sway you: I loved the soundtrack. It makes the perfect mix tape (or is it mix CD nowadays?) as the film clearly demonstrates.
And on that note, I’d like to thank the filmmakers for their love of Clan of Xymox, a band that only stayed in my peripheral vision during my gothier days. I listened to “Cry in the Wind”, the song that plays during the movie’s end credits over and over as I wrote this review.
That earns the film an extra star right there.