Words: Rob DeStefano

THE GUEST

The first Saw hit theaters in 2004, igniting a torture porn fever that perpetuated annually for six years – yes, there are seven installments for those counting. Throughout this near decade reign of brutal horror, similar iterations filled Jigsaw’s sabbaticals: Hostel I through III, The Human Centipedes, Captivity, The Collector, The Family Stone. This gore pileup eventually exhausted itself, forcing filmmakers and public interest to recoil from gritty, claustrophobic bloodletting and experiment with the nostalgic, in both atmosphere and storytelling. This is most evident in last year’s monster success, The Conjuring, set in 1971 and capitalizing on a good old-fashioned haunting; the trend continues with the release of its prequel, Annabelle. Turning the clock back in similar fashion, Ti West’s The House of the Devil revels in its 1980s spirit, attracting critical acclaim and bolstering the young director as a genuine genre talent. This push into the past garnered success with Berberian Sound Studio (an awarded festival favorite) and even Paranormal Activity 3 (a 1988 bewitchment that reinvigorated its franchise’s box office earnings). New to this conversation, and most important to it, is director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the duo responsible for 2013’s You’re Next. Their latest is The Guest, a present day film that’s steeped in an 80s aesthetic, is reverent to early horror, and is the kind of contemporary rendition we’ve needed.

When Mrs. Peterson’s doorbell sounds one unsuspecting dawn, we meet David (Dan Stevens), who claims to have been with her son at his untimely death. Subconsciously filling the void, she offers David a room, and encourages him to stay as he sorts out his post-military life. The other family members are more apprehensive than the Mrs., but David seems to be well versed in the Making Friends For Dummies series, quickly winning hearts wherever he goes; he serves as a venting and drinking companion for Mr. Peterson, a self-defense mentor to the youngest sibling Luke (Brendan Meyer), and a confidant to Luke’s older sister Anna (Maika Monroe), who has been secretly dating a drug dealer. David is a man’s-man, a lady’s-man, an everybody’s man, but why doesn’t this guy sweat or require sleep? Why aren’t those beers affecting him?

With his last two screenplays, Barrett has proven successful at juggling a variety of tones, tropes, and homages, while avoiding pretension. Without delving into spoilers, he is discontent in confining his stories. Here, we have notes of revenge, home invasion, slasher, and sci-fi. The characters who require a full coating of flesh (David, Anna, Luke) are treated accordingly, and matched by perfect performances from these three, you are given no choice but to invest. This delicate balance is honed by Wingard’s assured direction. Too often do we see indecisiveness in a film of this nature. An indie horror release this year, Honeymoon, flirted with too much, wanting to hit several targets and thus hitting none. The Guest moves with perfect rhythm as it leaps from humor to menace, often in the same scene.

Beneath all of its surface pop and abundant thrills, there is plenty to chew on. A question of utility is raised, especially in David, where a soldier’s mentality and commitment, whether that be to a person, a mission, or an idea, can have both beneficial and disastrous consequences. War is in the background here, and it is a smart decision to keep it at that distance. More evident is the film’s wickedly playful use of horror. It’s not outwardly meta, but David’s face so frequently consumes the frame, nearly looking straight out into the theater, that it suggests an undercurrent.

There’s no greater nod here than to Carpenter’s Halloween. Aside from its setting (days before a High School Halloween dance) and the synth-heavy soundtrack, Anna’s fight for survival is reminiscent of the all time female powerhouse. Like Carpenter’s genre contributions and game changers, Wingard and Barrett are on track to make quite the careers for themselves.


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