There are many movies bathed in nostalgia that recreate cinematic experiences of the past, yet few do it in a way that somehow feels modern at the same time. That’s the trick that director Adam Wingard has mastered over his last two movies. As wild as ‘You’re Next‘ was, ‘The Guest’ just might be better. A thriller/horror/comedy/action/satire laced with commentary, it’s a unique movie of the moment and also a flick that just as easily could have been discovered on some long lost VHS tape.
Dan Stevens stars as a former soldier who appears out of nowhere on the front steps of a family whose son was lost in battle. Stevens claims to know the departed and slowly worms his way into the parents’ home. He provides support for grieving mommy (Sheila Kelley), telling many soft stories about her son. He’s a drinking buddy for daddy (Leland Orser), who will listen to every single complaint after a few brewskies. He acts as an older brother for their surviving teen son (Brendan Meyer) and even helps with some bullying issues. Only the cynical goth sister (Maika Monroe) is skeptical, but even she softens when he starts walking around the house shirtless and shows an interest in her music tastes. Everything about the situation seems perfect, until he’s not. You see, Stevens’ unerring desire to help this family at all costs starts to develop a body count. That attracts the attention of the evil army folk who turned him into whatever he is. Eventually, all hell is just going to have to break loose in this tiny community. There’s really no other option.
The film is hinged on Stevens’ performance, and it’s pretty spectacular. He plays the character as a wide-eyed innocent, and Wingard (along with his longtime screenwriter Simon Barrett) take great delight in exploiting his manufactured All-American charms for warmth, comedy, action and horror. You know, all the good stuff. The writing/directing duo came into this film off of ‘You’re Next’, which established the filmmakers as whip-smart genre movie addicts who enjoy toying with conventions by both poking fun at them and gleefully taking left turns to defy expectations.
Boiled down to its essence, ‘The Guest’ is about nothing more than achieving a pure adrenaline rush of entertainment, yet Wingard/Barrett achieve that through so many different means that it starts to feel like more. It’s as if they came up with a central concept and couldn’t decide whether it should be a drama, thriller, horror movie or dark comedy. So, rather than choose a single path, they explored all of them at the same time without the movie ever feeling tonally inconsistent. Then they shove in a little contemporary military satire as icing on the cake.
Wingard shoots the whole thing as if he’s been possessed by vintage James Cameron or John Carpenter. That’s exactly the right way to go, given that at their best, both men rode the line between a variety of genres. Steadicams flow, and editing is fast and tight. Not a moment passes that doesn’t add to the overall design. The soundtrack pumps out synch sounds to back it up and the whole crazy adventure climaxes at a high school haunted house filled with neon lighting. It’s a complete blast from the past, yet without a second of camp or parody.
Wingard and Barrett clearly loved these genre movies growing up, but rather than copy, they’ve simply made the influences their own with stylistic nods to the past as footnotes. ‘The Guest’ is a throwback to the time when a B-movie could come packed with A-level credentials while still appealing primarily to the core genre fan base. That Wingard and Barrett could deliver such a wild, fun and unpredictable ride on such a low budget represents indie filmmakers hitting their peak. ‘You’re Next’ and ‘The Guest’ show off their talents so clearly and loudly that Hollywood is sure to come calling soon, and these guys are ready. ‘The Guest’ just might be the last project they make purely as cult filmmakers. They’re just too good to stay on the fringes much longer. With luck, they’ll be able to retain their distinct voice as storytellers even as their projects swell in scale. These guys are onto something big together. Let’s hope they get there without losing what made their little movies so special.