With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Adam Wingard’s The Guest is up.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett were at it again this year with this raucously funny and inventive take on the slasher film. Then again, even calling it a slasher film is doing it injustice, because The Guest is much more than that. To paraphrase the filmmakers themselves, it is ‘Halloween meets The Terminator’, but even that is a little reductive. The Guest is not only a slick thriller in its own right, but a brilliant and loving homage to the 80s genre films we know and love, as well as a commentary on the military-industrial complex.
The Guest is not only a slick thriller in its own right, but a brilliant and loving homage to the 80s genre films we know and love
The Guest comes on like your usual thriller; there is an idyllic American suburb, the perfectly American family personified by the Petersons, who live in a perfect American house. Enter David (played by Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens), the mysterious and handsome stranger who ingratiates himself to matriarch Laura (Sheila Kelley), as he claims friendship with her eldest son who recently died while serving overseas. Once he is invited to stay, however, David begins to exert his influence over the rest of the family, at first in positive ways but eventually in increasingly violent ones.
At first viewing, you may be unsure of what to think of The Guest. It doesn’t let on until halfway through how utterly bonkers it actually is. The film sets itself up as the kind of pot-boiling thriller that was a dime-a-dozen in the 1980s and 1990s; films such as Unlawful Entry and Pacific Heights, that featured normal looking, secretly psychopathic men who are only one act break away from a complete meltdown. These psychopaths always appeared amidst the mowed lawns and swing sets of domestic bliss, ready to bring the dark and violent outside world right to your front door.
Yet the film also perfectly captures the style of John Carpenter’s early films, complete with their eerie otherworldliness and killer synth soundtrack. The story is classic Carpenter: Dan Stevens’s David is a malevolent outside force destroying the world of the Peterson family from the inside out, much like Michael Myers did in Halloween, complete with a Doctor Loomis character personified by the always terrific Lance Reddick. In fact, it is Reddick’s appearance that really turns the action up a notch and allows Wingard to let it all hang out, genre-wise.
Wingard and Barrett are not just filmmakers but fans. They identify why we love horror and genre cinema
By this point the film completely turns and goes from a blackly comic thriller into a balls-out spectacle of pure insanity, Looney Tunes style. One of the greatest elements of this approach is that everyone plays it completely straight, adding to the mischievousness of the film. All, that is, except Stevens’s David, who seems to be the only one who realises that he is a character in a movie. Normally when a film is as self-aware as The Guest, the joke can grow very old very quickly, yet this self-awareness only makes it more exciting to watch as the increasingly ridiculous events unfold.
The trick Wingard and Barrett pull is to bring the audience over to the villain’s side. Not because he is sympathetic or has some kind of redemptive arc, but because he is the complete opposite of all that. The filmmakers want us to revel in the carnage, to laugh and whoop and cheer with every bullet fired at an innocent bystander and every grenade that is unceremoniously tossed into a crowded area. Wingard and Barrett are not just filmmakers but fans. They identify why we love horror and genre cinema. The Guest is pure, uncut vicarious thrills mainlined directly into our bloodstream.
There is a political subtext to all this gung-ho madness. Without giving too much away, David is a victim of the military-industrial complex. He is a veteran of America’s wars in the Middle East, plus a participant in a special military programme which is probably more responsible for David’s behaviour than the man is himself. There is a purposeful commentary here on the meat-grinder that is the modern military.
There’s a political subtext to all this madness. Without giving too much away, David is a victim of the military-industrial complex
Not only are its enemies caught up in it, but also the soldiers themselves. Couple this with corporate military contractors’ seemingly endless desire to develop the deadliest combat technology and these problems create a legacy where the actions committed in the name of defence or foreign policy is visited back on the country that encouraged them when the soldiers return home. Actually, perhaps we shouldn’t feel too guilty about siding with David after all.
The Guest is a wickedly mischievous genre homage that wears its influences on its sleeve and is elevated not only by its knowingness, but its ability to transcend those influences to become something blisteringly funny and wonderfully provocative. This is bravura, no-holds-barred filmmaking at its very best, coupled with a deliciously 80s synth soundtrack. Were there better films this year? Sure, and The Guest is not perfect. But even when it threatens to run out of steam toward its climax, there is a sudden Hail Mary moment as the film cuts to black, tying a giant red bow over this wonderful cinematic gift.
All images: Picturehouse