Friend of the Family, by David Bax
By the time the title card for The Guest appears onscreen, in a font you’ve seen screaming from a thousand VHS covers, accompanied by an ominous synth strike and followed immediately by a shot of a scarecrow, it seems clear we’re watching a horror movie. I mean, this is a film from Adam Wingard, the director of the thrilling, sickening and glorious home invasion flick You’re Next. So it must be horror, right? The thing is, it’s not. Not really. But the giddiness with which Wingard walks the tightrope, presenting a non-horror film with all the trappings of the horror genre, is a clue to how perfectly he has executed his trick. The Guest is both prankish fun and serious as hell.
Dan Stevens plays David, a former soldier who shows up one day at the doorstep of the family of one of his fallen brothers, keeping his word to check up on him and make sure they know their son and brother loved them. David’s presence is a dam that instantly stops the spreading decay in the grieving family. And so he is invited to stay. Of course, David is not quite the person he claims to be; or, even if he is, he’s not telling the whole story. Even though he seems to make everyone’s problems disappear, his subtle but growing incongruity begins to tug at the balance he’s created. Like duct tape holding up a swing set, he is a temporary solution and when it goes wrong, it goes catastrophic.
Stevens’ performance is the keystone, the trunk from which all the other branches depend. He’s flawless. When people talk about the dude all the dudes want to be and all the girls want to be with, they may not know it but they’re talking about David. At times, it’s so on the nose that it’s funny, but by design. When David emerges from the bathroom wearing only a towel and engulfed in steam and a halo of light that couldn’t possibly come from any practical fixture, it’s one of the most hilarious moments in the film. But the turmoil it creates in oldest child Anna (Maika Monroe), who finds him equally alluring and unsettling, is crucial to both the plot and the theme.
Wingard similarly threads a needle with his note-perfect use of music. The score, by Steve Moore, is pure John Carpenter and the choice of songs by the likes of Love & Rockets and Front 242 is as much on trend as it is a throwback.
As mentioned, things fall apart in the ideal domesticity David has built with lethal efficiency. In fact, things go haywire. The film expands by more than a few belt sizes from a tense and creepy small town thriller to something more. That leap shouldn’t work but it actually kicks the film into a higher, even more exhilarating gear.
By the end, the horror film promised by that title card returns. The Carpenter homage is completed with Halloween imagery and a final girl standoff. Still, it’s likely you’ll remember The Guest less as a commentary on the lynchpins of a genre than as simply a damn good movie.