Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick, Sheila Kelly, Leland Orser. Directed by Adam Wingard. (2014, 98 min).
Since director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett were responsible for the surprisingly amusing sleeper hit, You’re Next, one probably can’t help but have some elevated expectations for The Guest. While not a horror film in the same vein, it is a well-crafted psychological thriller which unfortunately didn’t get a fair shake at the box office.
Dan Stevens plays David, a recently-discharged soldier who pays an unexpected visit to the Petersons, a family still mourning the loss of their son, Caleb (recently killed in Afghanistan). David claims to be Caleb’s best friend, here to fulfill a promise to let them know how much he loved his family. After David reluctantly reveals he has no where else to go, the Petersons take him in as a houseguest. But we immediately suspect not all is quite-right with David; something sinister lurks behind the congenial smile and blue-eyed stare. The only one who seems to sense anything is askew is the oldest daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe).
Our suspicions are correct, of course, otherwise there’d be no movie. At first, David is friendly, helpful and supporting of the Petersons (who are pretty dysfunctional). But his generosity takes a psychotic turn when he begins taking violent revenge on those in town who’ve wronged a family member: he beats the shit out of some local high school bullies (which son Luke is totally cool with), frames a local drug dealer (and Anna’s slacker boyfriend) with the murder of a local criminal (killed by David himself). By the time Dad’s boss dies from an apparent suicide (resulting in a promotion), it’s obvious David is behind it all. However, only Anna is suspicious, and she contacts the Army to try and find out who David really is.
This is where the film takes an unexpected turn. David is apparently some kind of super-soldier, a one-man wrecking crew, and the Army drops everything to come out to stop him. It’s never made quite clear, but we’re led to believe “David” was part of a conditioning experiment gone wrong. David is also programmed to kill anyone who poses a treat to his real identity (which now includes the family he’s been protecting).
A lot of The Guest is pretty entertaining. Stevens exudes both charm and menace as David (even during quiet moments, we always have the feeling he’ll go postal at any minute). Monroe is also effective as Anna, even though her character is your standard example of disaffected youth. Unfortunately, aside from David, most of the adult characters are complete idiots, their overall cluelessness essential to plugging some obvious plot holes. The film isn’t as comedic as You’re Next, but there are a few amusing scenes in which some of David’s victims more-or-less get what’s coming to them. Director Adam Wingard maintains a pretty steady pace and tone, at least until the climactic Halloween funhouse scene, which is kind-of a generic and cliché location for a stand-off, especially in a film like this.
Still, The Guest is seldom boring, one of those movies with a slow-burning fuse before exploding with the violent fury we likely came to see. A door is gratuitously (and ridiculously) left open for a sequel that I doubt is forthcoming (or that anyone is pining for). But as it stands, this film is enough undemanding fun to make it worth checking out.