For better or worse, pastiche projects are all the rage in genre cinema these days. Sometimes they can be fun, but more often than not, they pale in comparison to the films they are unsubtly riffing on. All we can really do is grim and bear it as we await the occasional effort that aspires to be something more (or at least a little different) than a mere xerox of its influences.
Unfortunately, when such films arrive, we film critics and journalists usually stoop to statements like “The Guest is a delectable mixture of The Terminator and Halloween” to sell such more original fare to our readers. We all do it from time to time, myself included. We really shouldn’t. It might goose a few that take the time to read our ramblings into watching a film sooner, but such statements are more detrimental than helpful overall. They offer direct comparisons in terms of story and subgenre that shouldn’t be made because they create unrealistic and unfitting expectations in a viewer.
The Guest is not about an unstoppable killer stalking or chasing a protagonist for almost the entirety of its running time. Sorry folks, this is no slasher flick*. While there is a sociopath with ruthless killer instincts at its core and he does indeed pursue the survivors in the final moments of this tale, David Collins (Dan Stevens) is not the next horror icon and he was never intended to be one. That’s not what this is about.
So what is it about? A soldier returning from service irreparably altered by his time in the military. Granted there are some vague sci-fi elements to said and a palpable horror-esque vibe running throughout, but it all only helps to emphasize how conflict and combat can alter ones actions and priorities. David may look, sound, walk, and talk like a regular human being, but he is most certainly not one. Not anymore. That’s not to say that all who return from such circumstances are monsters, but some sadly can never override what was changed within.
Our tale opens with David visiting the home of The Petersons. They are comprised of parents Spencer (Leland Orser) and Laura (Sheila Kelley), young adult Anna (Maika Monroe), and teenager Luke (Brendan Meyer). A family of four that was once five strong. That missing fifth member is Caleb, the oldest child. Caleb was an Army buddy of David’s and was killed in action. David has arrived at their doorstep to check in on them, as he promised his deceased pal he would do as soon as he returned to the States.
David seems a bit off, but is welcomed into the home with open arms. While he is a reminder of their loss, he also seems to fill a bit of the void left within their hearts. His recollections of his own time with Caleb comforts the openly-grieving Laura. His presence as a sounding board to gripe to about day-to-day issues comforts the inwardly-grieving Spencer. He helps Luke suss out some issues with a bullying clique at high school. His advice and compliments pump up Anna’s self-esteem.
Now that they have David at their side, almost every aspect of the Petersons’ lives begin to slowly improve. The bullies stop harassing Luke. Anna’s loser boyfriend is out of her life. Spencer gets the promotion at work that he worked so hard to achieve. And Laura seems to be smiling and enjoying life again. Everything is hunky dory. David promised to look in on and take care of his pal’s family and like a soldier following orders, he does whatever it takes to accomplish the mission. On top of that, he has an agenda and a few secrets of his own. Once these beginning coming to light, well, let’s just say things don’t go well for the Petersons when their best interests are no longer aligned with David’s.
The Guest is a very well made film from top to bottom, from its tight script to its deft execution. Complimenting both are some surprisingly atmospheric visuals and a pulse-pounding synth-based score that only add to the uneasy mood that Wingard is striving for. Most of all, however, it is the titular character that makes it sing. Effortlessly brought life by Stevens, David is someone to root for and fear in equal measure. A cold heart lies behind his warm, welcoming smile and matter-of-fact tone. You know that something isn’t quite right about him, but he’s so charming that you just don’t care.
The rest of the cast are more than game for what is ultimately in store for them and none drop the ball. On top of our core characters, there’s also a bit of fun from supporting players Lance Reddick, Joel David Moore and the always-welcome Ethan Embry (who is in a LOT of good stuff this year). They are cherries atop an already delicious dessert.
Don’t see The Guest because of its loose genre influences, even though the above-mentioned ones are present (along with a few others). See it because it aspires to take those influences and mix them into a new dish, instead of just being content with copying your old favorite recipes. See it because it has good characters, a good cast and a good score. See it because of Dan Stevens. See it because of director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. See it because, shockingly enough, most seem to really enjoy it … if not love it, like me!
Most of all, though, see it because it’s a damn good little film and it sounds interesting to you.
*Yes, the heavy horror elements of James Cameron’s slam-dunk killer robot classic are all slasher, baby. The fact that the initial fever dream which spawned his idea for it was a robot brandishing a knife and crawling after him out of a fire says it all. The cyborg and time travel elements are a beautiful garnish atop of what is basically a psycho killer movie.