The 1980s were a great time. Not that I would really know since I wasn’t alive back then, but if the movie output of that decade was anything to go by, it was an amazing era. In fact, everybody loves the ’80s so much, we’re trying to make the 2010’s (’10s? That doesn’t sound right.) the new ’80s. It seems that everything nowadays is a remake or renewal of an ’80s IP, or a throwback to the style and aesthetics of that decade. And while not everything can be as amazing and brilliant as last year’s totally-not-made-just-because-the-80s-are-back-in-style-and-we-love-money Jem and the Holograms movie, we are getting some pretty good media that not only captures the essence of the ’80s, but builds on it and infuses some modern flare.
The Guest is a thriller directed by Adam Wingard, the same guy who directed 2011’s amazing semi-deconstructionalist-home-invasion-meets-slasher-but-seriously-not-as-pretentious-as-that-sounds flick You’re Next. The Guest would fall into the same vein as movies like You’re Next and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a distinctly modern movie that pays tribute to the stylings of 1980s action, thriller, and horror flims.
The Guest follows the Petersons, an average American family who’s eldest son Caleb was a soldier who was killed while serving overseas. They are visited by a young man named David (Dan Stevens) who claims to be an army buddy of Caleb’s and who has been tasked by the deceased son to visit and help out the Peterson family. Once David arrives though, some unusual things (namely corpses) start cropping up in the Petersons’ lives and it becomes obvious that David isn’t everything he says he is.
This movie is a pretty tight little thriller, sitting at just below an hour and forty-five minutes. Immediately it sucks you in, as Stevens’ performance as David has a weird and entrancing intensity about it. He acts courteous and gentlemanly towards Mrs. Peterson, but just watching his eyes and mannerisms tell you that something isn’t quite right with him. The Guest is one of those movies where right off the bat you know something is going to go down, and you just need to buckle in and wait it out. It’s kind of like Carrie (the original at least, I haven’t seen the 2013 remake). You know the movie is going to end in a telekinetic bloodbath, so the movie becomes about going along for the ride and watching everything build up to the climax of the film. I actually really like movies like that because then it feels like you’re on a repeat viewing of a film with a twist ending, picking up all the small details along the way and seeing how all the puzzle pieces fit together.
Visual storytelling is the name of this movie’s game. On the production and directing side of things, this movie is pretty great. There is tons of visual storytelling and nice attention to detail that keeps you invested and immersed in the story, although there are a couple choices that are a little too hamfisted for my tastes. A not-so-spoilery example being the scene where David brings Luke (the youngest kid of the Petersons, a nerdy loner who gets picked on a lot) to a bar that is serving the football team bullies, with the intent of teaching them a lesson or two with his fists. When they walk in, the very first thing we as an audience see is a huge sign that says NO FIGHTING on the door to the bar. Great. Thanks for the heads up. We really needed that spelled out for us. There are only a couple instances of this in the entire movie but for the most part, the movie does a fantastic job subtly laying down the fact that David is stronger, faster, and overall better than your average person (army trained or not). My favorite instance of this: the pumpkin carving scene. Yeah, sure there’s the little bit with the butterfly knife but when you watch the movie, look at the difference between David and Luke’s jack-o-lanterns. It seems like something so mundane, and no real attention is drawn to it, but seeing David’s expertly carved pumpkin next to Luke’s averagely carved one is a great little way to show that our mysterious main man is surprisingly dexterous.
Also, a quick point: the soundtrack to The Guest is amazing. It’s a synth ridden ’80s throwback masterpiece and Adam Wingard definitely comes from John Carpenter’s School For Low Droning Synths And Atmosphere Building. Even if you think the movie is mediocre, there’s no denying how great this soundtrack is.
The one thing I do wish Wingard did in terms of visuals was keep a consistent visual style throughout the whole movie. The Halloween maze sequence is stunning, playing like something straight out of a Dario Argento or Refn film. The colours, fog, and locations of the last act are so different from the rest of the movie that it almost seems out of place. That being said, the sudden change in visual style could be what made the ending of this movie stand out so much more to me. I did find the use of colour a little bland before this scene, with the only really striking segment being the Halloween house party that David and Anna go to. Most of the action in this movie is really well handled, with smooth camerawork and clear, easy to digest editing. You can really see and feel most of the action in this movie, and none of it leaves you scratching your head wondering who just hit who or what the hell is going on. I’m looking at you, Taken.
The narrative of The Guest is also a little odd, with the introduction of the KPG corporation partway through the film. You glean bits and pieces of what they’ve done to David, but nothing about them or their programs is ever explained. Now, this would seem like a gaping plot hole but, honestly, it didn’t bother me too much. You’re invested enough with the characters and action that this lack of information doesn’t seem like a cop out. In fact, it makes you wish there was a sequel explaining everything about David’s backstory. Dan Stevens does such a great job in this role that he really comes across as charming and incredibly intimidating. He doesn’t seem to be some mysterious, invincible boogeyman despite having super soldier like qualities to him, and that paired with his honest attempts to help the Petersons out makes him an anti-hero worth rooting for. On top of that, the rest of the main roles are very well acted, especially the mother and father of the Petersons. The weakest acting role I found was Maika Monroe, who plays Anna Peterson. Maika has got some horror acting chops, as seen in It Follows, but she seemed to fall a little flat here. She seemed bored throughout the movie, and I never really believed her in her role.
This paragraph will have spoilers with regards to the very end of the movie, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want spoilers. This movie had a literal what the fuck ending. As in, the last lines spoken in the whole movie were Anna saying “What the fuck?” under her breath as a disguised David limps away from the school gymnasium after being left for dead (and to us audience members, presumably killed by Anna and Luke). While the ending lends itself back into the KPG super soldier program and adds another layer of mystery to David’s background (as well as opens up the possibilities for a sequel), I think it was a little too blunt for this movie. Literally 10 seconds before we see that David is in fact alive, a firefighter at the scene says how there are two dead bodies inside the gymnasium. Two bodies. We saw one of the school’s teachers, Major Carver, and David die inside the gym. Three bodies. The audience can do the math. That to me would have been the perfect ending to this movie. The Guest is already so good at subtly showing us the story rather than throwing it right in your face, that the written ending seemed a little over the top.
The Guest is a gem of a movie that deserves some more attention. While I definitely wouldn’t call it a cult movie (it has over 60,000 ratings on IMDb), it somehow seems to be a movie that has slipped past most people’s radars. It’s a fun, exciting, and original movie with great acting, solid action, stylish visuals, and soundtrack that’s ’80s-ier than the ’80s themselves. While I definitely enjoyed Adam Wingard’s You’re Next more than The Guest, I think Wingard is a great director who has some seriously exciting upcoming projects. He’s slated to direct the new Halloween sequel (which will be written by John Carpenter!), the Death Note live action adaptation, and the American remake of I Saw The Devil. I’m aboard the Wingard hype train. Now I just need to check out the first two V/H/S movies, as he directed one of the segments in each of those.
If you’ve seen The Guest, let me know what you thought!