Part comedy, part thriller, and part horror flick, The Guest is a genre cocktail starring a new kind of monster.
If you’re familiar with Dan Stevens, it’s probably with his work on Downton Abbey as the kind-hearted English gentleman Matthew Crawley. Other than that, his career is largely a blank slate, with most of us having no preconceived notions about him as an actor. This absence of expectation is a key ingredient in Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s The Guest, the director-writer duo’s evocative, comic-thriller follow-up to their new-gen horror romp You’re Next, in which Stevens plays a blue-eyed mystery man who we can’t quite pin down. He’s a handsome, polite Kentucky boy with enough charm to make you weak in the knees, but there’s also an intensity, a menace lurking deep inside those unblinking baby blues that’ll make your knees buckle from fright. Try as you might, you can’t unglue your eyes from his, and whether he uses his good looks or his bare hands, one thing’s for sure: he’s a killer.
Things get set in motion in typical horror movie fashion–the ring of a doorbell. Standing at the door is David (Stevens), a freshly-discharged war veteran who’s come to the home of Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) to fulfill an oath he made to her dead son Caleb, his former comrade, to tell the family how much Caleb loved them. He speaks to her tenderly, and she’s overwhelmed when she sees David standing next to her son in a photo of their brigade. David only means to pass through their small New Mexico town on his way to Florida, but Laura insists he stay with them for a couple days in Caleb’s old room. With Southern humility and a kind smile, he accepts the offer. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Less trusting of their new guest is Laura’s family. Her husband, Spencer (Leland Orser), fears David may have PTSD. Their introverted teenage son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), feels uncomfortable around him (as he does most people), and their daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), is the most skeptical of all, dismissing David’s story of how he knew her brother with a laugh.
Despite starting off on shaky ground with the Petersons, David slowly begins to ingratiate himself into their world: He shares late night beers with Spencer, beats up bullies for Luke, and uses his, um….pectoral assets…to get Anna swooning so hard she makes him a mix tape. But as the audience, we have a slightly better sense of David’s true character. Whenever he’s alone, sitting on his fallen comrade’s bed with the lights off, moonlight streaming through the window, he looks soulless, sitting so still, for so long, it’s bone-chilling.
Wingard and Barrett never give us the slightest peek into what’s going on inside David’s head, a brilliant choice that makes the film devilishly fun as we try to decipher what his true intentions are. Many of his actions indicate he’s genuinely here to help the Petersons, but as gruesome acts of violence start popping up around town (the victim’s of which are all tied to the family), we wonder what David’s angle really is.
What’s unique about The Guest is how chameleonic and nimble it is in terms of tone and genre. It’ll make you laugh to tears (Stevens’ bone-dry comedic timing is on-point, holding his icy stare hilariously longer than you expect), and it’ll then slip gracefully into horror/thriller mode, overwhelming you with nerve-racking suspense. It’s an action movie, a parable on PTSD and government neglect of veterans, a Hitchcockian character study (look up Hitch’s first major film, The Lodger), and a loving throwback to ’80s horror (the synths used in the score are the same ones Carpenter used in the Halloween series). This isn’t a mere pastiche, though–it’s more cohesive and well-crafted than that, turning genre conventions upside-down and toying with our expectations.
Who else, I wonder, could have played the seductive, cyborg-like David as well as Stevens? This is the perfect time in the Brit’s career to be playing this particular role. Had someone like, say, Ryan Gosling been cast as David, the mystery would be lost. Gosling has the ability and good looks to play the part no question, but we know the guy too well. We know the type of roles he gravitates to, and his face is too linked with his celebrity to achieve the sense of mystery the role of David requires. Stevens, on the other hand, has never, ever been seen on screen in a role like this. His chiseled physique is intimidating and alluring (he was a tad fluffier on Downton), and from those deadly eyes there is no escape. This is new ground for him, new ground for us, and we can see him as nothing but a wildcard, a monster we’ll never know.
You’re Next was a playful, muscly riff on home invasion horror, as is The Guest. But with their new film, Wingard and Barrett add layers upon layers of flavor to the recipe, whipping homages to The Terminator, Halloween, and The Stepfather together into a deliciously pulpy 99-minute thrill ride. There’s nothing quite like it, and as a great man once said, hold on to your butts: This prolific writer-director dream team has got plenty more in store for us in the coming years. I’m sweating in anticipation.