An ex-soldier, David (Dan Stevens), turns up at the doorstep of the Peterson family on what appears to be a mission fulfilling a promise made to his former squad mate, the Peterson’s late son. While ingratiating himself with the Peterson clan, a series of increasingly strange and violent events around their sleepy little town start to arouse the suspicions of elder daughter Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe) that David isn’t what he claims to be.
I have never seen Downton Abbey. At the very least I’ve not seen Dan Stevens’ tenure on said serialised telly dramatics and thanks to The Guest I really doubt I’ll be able to ever watch it without imagining a creepy, 1980’s synth track masking a growing sense of dread and ratcheting violent tension. I’m even going to go so far as to say I’m fairly sure that’s not how you’re supposed to watch Downton Abbey. Even the slower episodes.
Having successfully wrangled the ghost of John Carpenter (not John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, thank Christ) with their earlier surprise home-invasion slasher, You’re Next, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett turn their admiration of all things Halloween to more lighter fare, namely Dan Stevens being unsettlingly good at violence. Also just plain unsettling. Imagine a handsome blonde terminator with charm instead of a shotgun (that said he may also have a shotgun hidden somewhere). It’s just incredible that despite how obviously untrustworthy, creepy and suddenly violent Steven’s David can be, the combination of the winning smile, the ice-blue eyes and the removed-yet-pally demeanour turn you over just as much as his surrogate family in the Petersons.
With Stevens on an all-out charm/violence offensive, dominating all the screen-time he gets, the Petersons themselves are portrayed as your standard, yet believable, American unit (even though they all go gooey for our Mister Mystery at one point or another) who just so happen to be in the eye of a storm of bodies that somehow just keep piling up. One overheard private phone call later and things start to ramp up a gear. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but by the third act we’re up to our ears in Special Forces Agents, shootouts, a spooky Halloween maze and a high school auditorium on fire.
The best part about the preceding events is just how mischievous it all feels: if you’re versed in the school of 80s slasher films then you’ll notice The Guest riffing all over their tropes and references with the energy of an enthusiastic cover band of The Specials, whereas if you’re not then you can simply absorb the fun of the increasingly-ridiculous situations that dance hyperactively before your eyes. Trust me when I say you’ll end up laughing out loud, usually at things you realise a little while later you really shouldn’t have.
Just like You’re Next, the soundtrack is spot on for a loving homage to all things 1980s. You’d think that the same trick wouldn’t work twice, but because the mood, pace and feel of The Guest has much more of a fun, popcorn feel to it, the pulsing soundtrack simply fuels the anarchic 80s sensibility. That said it does at times feel like a pop-punk version of Drive without the whole melancholic arc of redemption through necessary evils. Also, unlike Drive, it doesn’t try to portray itself as the Everest of all-that-is-cool. The Guest is happy rolling around in it’s ridiculous adoration for its genre, like a dog in grass cuttings on the lawn that you’ve just cut and really hoped it wouldn’t do, but it’s too late to do anything now and you’ve ended up with a grassy dog.
You might expect me to claim that this short-sightedness in anything past its favoured era and genre would be a major downfall of The Guest. But honestly? It’s fine. It may not have the greatest cinematic depth in the world, and certain ancillary plot points may seem a bit off, but these are brushed over as everyone knows you just wanted to see a movie with that guy from Downton Abbey starting off as unsettlingly charming and gradually going more and more nuts with a heavy 80s vibe.
I could try to give a hamstrung food analogy for The Guest, but instead I’m going to plumb for something slightly different. To me The Guest seems like one of those cheap bottles of ‘select’ wine you buy from Asda. You’re not going in expecting much, but that first taste is nothing if not neatly pleasant. Thing is, though, it’s pleasant enough that before you know it, you’ve greedily knocked back the whole damn bottle, wherein the entire experience gets better and better until BLAM! Everything goes snooker loopy and Lance Reddick and a bunch of Special Forces guys turn up and transform your house into bullet holes with sawdust in between them. Oh yeah, Lance Reddick’s in this too. That’s always a good thing. (Ed: Lance Reddick played the role of Lieutenant Cedric Daniels in HBO’s ‘The Wire’, a show Scott notably will never get over)
Director: Adam Wingard
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Lance Reddick, Leland Orser
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release: 5th September