21st Aug2014

Frightfest 2014: ‘The Guest’ Review

by Jack Kirby

Stars: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Ethan Embry, Joel David Moore, Candice Patton, Lance Reddick, Brendan Meyer, Jesse Luken | Written by Simon Barrett | Directed by Adam Wingard

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You’re Next was my favourite films of last year, so I was very excited to see director Adam Wingard’s latest, The Guest. We’re introduced to the Petersons, a small-town family who lost a son in the war in the Middle East. David (Dan Stevens, apparently best known for appearing in Downton Abbey), a former member of the deceased’s squad turns up unannounced one day to pay his respects, stays the night and finds himself ingratiated into the family’s life, sticking up for the bullied younger brother, providing dad with a drinking buddy, keeping an eye out for gothy older sister and generally being very nice to mum. As you might well expect however, David is not all that he seems and it isn’t long before Bad Things start happening.

The best thing that The Guest gets right is striking a near perfect tone. There’s a constant, unspoken threat of violence permeating almost all of the early scenes but also a healthy dose of very carefully crafted black humour (much as in You’re Next). As such, you’re never quite sure if a scene is going to conclude with a belly laugh or someone getting their teeth knocked out, making for a pleasingly unpredictable first act or so. Because this weirdly tense-funny atmosphere is generated so well, the film gets away with what would be an otherwise too-ridiculous second act twist that sets the pace for a joy ride through to the film’s conclusion.

Recurring Wingard writer Simon Barrett’s pleasingly exposition-lite script is key to the film’s success, but Dan Stevens’ brilliantly measured performance must come a close second. He totally nails the charismatic psychopath role in this and is brilliant to watch, keeping the audience guessing as to his character’s true motivations. The rest of the cast are also strong, in particular Maika Monroe, who provides spunk and guile as the one member of the Petersons not wholly enamoured by the mysterious soldier. Brendan Meyer is dopey but likeable in the younger brother role and Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser convince as feckless mom and pop.

The film also works as a fitting tribute to eighties horror, perhaps best exemplified through its heavily synth-based soundtrack, which is for the most part diegetic, which I liked very much. The setting of the concluding scene manages to be both tension heavy and tongue in cheek – finding as it does a legitimate reason to flood the set in dry ice – which is kind of a synecdoche for the film as a whole.

The Guest is sharp, witty and most importantly, fun. It might not reach quite the same heights of deranged glee as You’re Next, but as a slice of American, small-town life gone hideously wrong, it doesn’t make a single misstep. You could argue it takes its time to hit its stride in its early sequences, but I felt the slow-burn approach really paid off later and there are enough thrills and spills in the rest of the film to more than make up for any supposed time-taking. The Guest opens this year’s FrightFest and I think they’ve chosen very wisely indeed.

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