Directed By: Adam Wingard
Release Date: September 17, 2014
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Lance Reddick
Every so often, there's a movie that slips onto your radar, gets your interest, and then subsequently falls right back off, not by choice but by circumstance. Some films never come to your city; others do in a limited capacity, and yet you just can't manage to get the time to drive out and see it because life gets in the way. Whatever the case, it slips off your radar, life goes on, and then, one day, it finds its way back, and you get the chance - somehow, someway - to finally see it.
Adam Wingard's The Guest was one such film for me. I remember hearing good things upon its initial release that piqued my interest, but the film itself eluded me, disappearing almost as quickly as it had come before I had the chance to see it in theaters. Fortunately, however, we live in the Netflix era, and once I saw it turn up on the streaming service, my attention was grabbed once again, the film added to the end of a long queue, the positive word-of-mouth I continued to hear about it going a long way to build my excitement for it, though I deliberately chose to go into it knowing as little about the finer details of it as I possibly could.
The synopsis above is about as much as anyone seeing the film for the first time should know, as the unveiling of the mystery behind the titular character is a large part of the fun. Almost immediately, Wingard clues us in that something is, well, off when it comes to Dan Stevens' David, who turns up unannounced and spends a large chunk of the film swinging back and forth between being genuinely unsettling and incredibly charismatic, keeping viewers guessing as to what he's really doing there and what his motives are.
The film is made up of a number of familiar faces, with reliable character actors like Leland Orser, Ethan Embry, and Lance Reddick on hand to do what they do best, but the film truly benefits from having Maika Monroe - who starred in last year's It Follows - as its female lead, Anna. Just like in that film, she brings with her a sense of realism, and once her investigation into the truth sparks off a chain of events that begin spiraling past the point of no return, it's easy to root for her as the character never devolves into becoming a damsel in distress or one reliant on others for strength.
That said, the film is Stevens' to own, which he does without question. This was my first experience seeing the former Downton Abbey actor in anything, and I can't deny he won me over. The mystery behind David gives him a broad canvas on which to paint the character, and though - spoiler alert - he ends up going on a killing spree, it's hard not to like the guy, even as the pile of bodies he stacks up gets ever higher. We learn little about him, but the revelations that do come to light help add needed complexity to him, explaining but not excusing his actions on an almost-tragic level without ever sidetracking the narrative to spell everything out, putting faith in the audience to put the pieces together on their own.
I've seen the film compared to numerous '80s films, from The Terminator to any number of John Carpenter projects, and to talk about The Guest without acknowledging those influences would be doing it a disservice. From its slow-burn pace and wonderful payoff to the way its opening title card kicks off the movie to its synth-filled soundtrack to its final twist, Wingard has no qualms about relishing in the homages to the past, but never lets the film veer off into feeling like a rip-off, instead standing on its own two feet in a way that allows those influences - for those actively looking out for them - to inform the film rather than overshadow it.
This couldn't be more evident than in the film's grand finale set in the local high school's gym, decked out for Halloween in advance of a big dance and home to an incredibly elaborate haunted house, the type only a movie high school would be able to afford. This garish and somewhat nightmarish locale feels like something straight out of an old school slasher movie, right down to playing with the "final girl" trope as Anna chooses to go mano a mano with her enemy upon realizing there's no escape.
While the film's entire soundtrack is on point throughout its runtime, this final sequence features some of its best music choices, accentuating the action with some incredible tunes that help solidify the climax as the true centerpiece of the film. As I mentioned, the entirety of the film is loaded with synth courtesy of artists like Annie, Gatekeeper, and SURVIVE, but nothing ever sounds the same, the music pumping lifeblood into the whole affair from beginning to end. It's an excellent, infectious soundtrack, and one that really helps the film shape its identity as a love letter to an era of filmmaking many still love and others may hate.
Ultimately, The Guest may not be for everybody, particularly those disinterested in the types of films its emulating or those who need answers to everything by the time the credits roll. It is a film that doesn't rush itself until it's ready to, nicely savoring its character moments over plowing through them, but it's in that deliberate patience that the tension is slowly and wonderfully ratcheted up, giving Stevens the chance to shine and get his hooks into both the people around him and viewers themselves before making the ultimate payoff worth the ride.
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