It hardly needs pointing out that mainstream American horror is in something of a rut at the moment. Most recent titles seem to fall into two similarly unsatisfying camps: personality free remakes of yesteryear’s successes, and those with a more psychological inclination. Unfortunately psychological horror’s meaning appears to have shifted from something that manages to get under your skin and really creep you out to something that makes sudden loud noises every now and then and has a creepy doll in it. Occasionally though, something good does manage to slip through the cracks, The Cabin in the Woods springs to mind with it’s postmodern smarts and real unpredictability. However, it’s rare that the U.S nowadays can produce a clever, well constructed and genuinely original horror film without having to wink at its audience ironically.
Thankfuly, there is Adam Wingard who proved with his last effort You’re Next that the old ways aren’t quite dead, doing for John Carpenter what Super 8 did for Spielberg. With gleeful gore, a synthesizer lead soundtrack and a strong female protagonist, You’re Next didn’t so much provide anything new as it did return, with affection and sincerity, to how things used to be done. His follow up, The Guest, is also filled to the brim with that same genre know-how. However, it’s much harder to classify, in fact it seems to resist labeling altogether, even if it is set at Halloween and was screened at this year’s Frightfest. Not quite an action film, not quite a psychological thriller, not quite a slasher, the film is a mix of all of these and more (it even has a small element of sci-fi) to create something that is hugely enjoyable.
At a lean 99 minutes, it also tells its story without unnecessary length. A nuclear-family, the Petersons, mourn the loss of their eldest son Caleb to the war in Afghanistan, when one day an unexpected visitor shows up declaring that he knew him. The soldier, David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), is welcomed into the house with open arms, whereupon he reveals that he made a promise to Caleb, to check on his family and make sure that they were okay. He proceeds to do so with extreme dedication: helping youngest child Luke defend himself from bullies, aiding Luke’s Sister Anna with her relationship problems and so on. Seemingly adored by everyone, David continues to live as a house-guest in the Peterson’s home, however it eventually becomes apparent that he is not who he seems to be. Revealing too much more would spoil the fun, but it is always quite clear where things are heading.
Most of the attention will focus on Steven’s electrifying performance and rightly so. Remarkably charismatic, even when you know of his lethal intentions, it’s hard to side against the supremely polite, overly courteous psychopath. Steven’s succeeds in going back and forth between ultimate nice guy and ultimate bad guy in the blink of an eye, his manner not changing a beat when he does so, making the transition all the more threatening. When he informs someone he is going to kill them with the same inflection with which he gratefully accepts the offer of a beer, it prompts an uneasy chuckle.
Steven’s winning charisma may be what captures the broader audience’s attention, but for genre aficionados it’s Wingard’s reverence for the old school that will really impress. His understanding of the era he’s throwing back to transcends the mere box ticking of well known conventions. We all know the narrative clichés and tropes, but Wingard has an eye for the little things, the John Carpenter-esque music, the flamboyant lighting, the abrupt scene transitions, the nature of the denouncement – even the font of the title text is spot on! If it wasn’t for the contemporary post-911 concerns and references to laptops and Mobile phones, you’d swear blindly that this was a product of the 1980s. It’s almost a shame that you won’t be able to rent it on VHS, it seems purpose built for it.
Mixed with these charming, retro details is witty writing, well judged comedy, terrific direction and a fantastic final act, if anything lets it down, it’s the tameness of the violence (all the more disappointing after an early bar fight which suggests things could go entirely the other way). Nevertheless with a true old school spirit and a captivating central performance, The Guest is a welcome shot in the arm for the horror genre…. if indeed it even is a horror film.