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With a few projects under their belt now, writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard have distinguished themselves as filmmakers who like to subvert the horror genre. With their fifth partnership, however, they didn't just tackle a different genre, but rather mash horror, thriller, comedy, action, and more. Miraculously, The Guest is more than a coherent piece of filmmaking, but a bloody entertaining one.
This is one of those films where I was fortunate to see it in the perfect setting. Back in its UK release at the tail end of 2014, I attended a free student screening on its premiere night. I had no idea what I was in for, save for a promotional poster of a gorgeous but terrifying Dan Stevens staring at me. The screening was packed, us students love a deal, but it quickly turned into a large scale midnight movie event. The audience transitioned from tense stillness to audible laughs to one guy unforgettably shouting at the screen "what the fuck?!" In my eyes you can't get a better response from an audience. I'm certain, however, I was the only one who was grinning from ear to ear by the time the credits rolled, as there was a lot of chatter amongst the audience about not understanding what they watched. It's a strange beast, The Guest; if you don't get on Barrett and Wingard's level then all you're going to get is a tonally messy straight-faced thriller. I find it hard to view this film as most mainstream audiences did, especially when the key is in the opening few shots. We don't see the titular character's face, but his back. The music is reminiscent of 70s B-movie horror. Mix that with the jump scare title card, we know this guest will have his dark secrets and that the filmmakers are going to lean into twisting and breaking conventions, but we just don't know how absurd things will get.
It is a film of two halves essentially: The slow-burn mystery of who David is and the mayhem that follows when all is revealed. Barrett and Wingard have so much fun, however, that what could have been a boring mystery is so entertaining. It begins with some serious character drama and low-key tension, but doesn't take long to start playing it's hand. The first action sequence captures the essence of the film in a little nutshell; we know a fight is going to happen and we're going to see that David is a lethal protector, but we have no idea how that is all going to play out and just how lethal David truly is. What sold the whole film to me was the crash zoom on David's face mid-fight, whipping round to spot Luke in trouble. Clearly a homage to old school kung-fu flicks this is the filmmakers winking at us, telling us not to take everything so seriously. Now we know what kind of ride Barrett and Wingard want to take us on. From there the mystery escalates with the set-pieces and the pacing between these two aspects make The Guest ridiculously entertaining. As the mystery reaches its climax and dives into chaos we transition from mystery thriller to 70s political thriller and horror-action. All along the way the absurdity makes for some great comedy. Again, it's incredible that this works but kudos to Barrett and Wingard for balancing out their different styles and genres.
The Guest has cemented itself as an enjoyable ride to experience with friends on a Friday night, but what I was shocked to discover on my recent viewing was the tragedy lying underneath the laughs and action. As much as we're led to believe that David is this archetypal character of a wolf in sheep's clothing, he isn't so much a straight up antagonist. His primary objective is to protect and look after the family of his deceased best friend, which he does. Yes, he carries out his objective in a not so friendly way, but his intentions are completely for the well-being of the Peterson family. In return, the Peterson family appreciates David's aid—except Anna, but that is only because the killings personally affect her in the short-term. Everything adds up to be an unfortunate case, with everyone trying to do good in their own way. David is earnest in his aid towards the Petersons and Anna is concerned about the well-being of those close to her. Each character knows what they have to do in order to survive by the end of the film. It's even more tragic with David as he is simply trying to escape his past and make something of this opportunity he has to turn things around. Dan Stevens does a phenomenal job in this role and it was this film that cemented him as an actor to watch. As well as perfectly balancing the lovable samaritan and menacing stranger, Stevens conveys the understanding of the situation he's in and the actions of those around him in the finale. To make one feel this sombreness in a film filled with comedy and absurd chaos proves this B-movie has some great writing and performances for us to care a little.
Everyone has moved on since The Guest released back in 2014. Most notably, Wingard has moved on to direct far bigger productions and Stevens starred in a Disney blockbuster, but it was this film that put those involved onto the radar. Some of these people may have had a few rocky projects during their career since, but The Guest showcases the best of their talents. What they made was a film where everyone devoted themselves to embracing what they love about cinema: The many genres, the serious drama involved, the absurd, and the camp. However much fun you had watching The Guest, I guarantee the cast and crew had 10 times as much.