The Calls are Coming from Inside the House: Adam Wingard’s “The Guest”

After establishing himself amongst horror lovers as a quirky, smart and genre-literate director with You’re Next, Adam Wingard resists the easy request to imitate himself and instead makes an action thriller that blasts open the horror film highlights of the 70s and 80s to extract a post-modern glimmer of what made those films so cool.

The plot concerns a typical American family grieving the loss of their son who receive a visit from a recently discharged marine (Dan Stevens) who claims to have served with their son overseas. But this charming, well-mannered man is not what he seems, and as his stay continues, so too does an escalating series of mayhem in the small town.

The film’s thinly-plotted opening half is carried amiably by Dan Stevens as David in a star-making performance that could easily upset Ryan Gosling’s darling position as Nicholas Winding Refn’s similarly muscle-bound, blond automaton with heart. Having left his starched collar and plump chin along with his accent in Downton Abbey, Stevens grins, stares and purrs his performance to perfection. Burning pure, machismo sex that hasn’t been captured on film since the testosterone-juiced golden age of 80s action stars, the character handles himself, his fists, his women and his guns with aplomb, and the script provides ample opportunities for him to make use of all these things in an escalating series of wish-fulfilling retributions. In one instance, he advises his new friend and would-be protégé that if someone bullies you, bring a knife to school, and if they persist you burn their house down with the bully and his family inside. (A line which ought to provoke discomfort in any listener but when delivered through Dan Stevens’ Machiavellian performance was met with uproarious laughter and applause from the Midnight Madness audience at TIFF–and who said Canadians were nice?)

One further note on David: during the post-film Q&A at TIFF, Wingard also mentioned his excessive obsession with Prometheus (as if he weren’t referencing enough with this movie), and it’s no surprise that the superhuman killer bears the same name as Michael Fassbender’s David. Stevens’ David is equally charming, equally enigmatic, although given how much Wingard claims to have struggled with Scott’s movie, it is probably not a coincidence that David’s programming in this film is more logical, sensical, and better-integrated with the plot than Prometheus ever managed. Like in Scott’s film, Wingard spends the second half of his systematically destroying all the good will and sympathy he’s spent accruing for David, and it’s a testament to Stevens performance that this sociopathic murderer maintains our interest.

Though Wingard and writer Simon Barrett mentioned Terminator and Halloween as their main influences, neither reference begins to emerge until mid-way through the film. To avoid revealing too much of the plot too soon, Wingard keeps everything vague to the extent that the audience can never be entirely sure of David’s plans or intentions. Wingard and his talented cast are capable of maintaining our interest, but it’s really only when the film embraces its more generic qualities that the film begins to show Wingard’s flair for subversion. As it stands, the first half functions as a slow burn towards an explosive conclusion, but more could have been done to take this first half from necessary exposition to indispensable cinema.

This first half might have worked better, for example, had Wingard and Barrett committed to an idea they only sketch tangentially throughout. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for assuming the filmmakers were building towards an indictment of American society for crafting these fine-tuned killing machines without any plan or even interest in reintegrating them. The film lays out all the pieces, showing a family adopting a former soldier as a surrogate son, one who clearly struggles with some deep-rooted trauma and the unmistakable fact that he is not capable of exercising pacifism in any situation, and even as the violence of the second half mounts, little would have been sacrificed, and perhaps a great deal of sincerity (and even absurdity) might have been gained had even one character reflected on this American-made Manchurian Candidate.

That Wingard and Barrett refuse to engage with the real-world concerns of soldiers struggling with PTSD isn’t necessarily a problem (if only because there are already films which do so), but after the jarring tonal shift in the film’s middle (probably imported from Wingard’s earlier desire to make an assassin movie in Asia) any real-world considerations are exploded alongside David’s unstoppable, Jason-Bourne-styled rampage. One wonders whether Wingard refused to engage with anything passing for a real-world analogue because he wasn’t interested or because he didn’t feel comfortable going beyond homage to his favourite films. But since he’s proven himself capable of tackling a broad swath of styles and genres with wit, candor and grace, here’s hoping that his next film pushes his abilities further without denigrating his story.

Essentially my griping stems from Wingard’s wish to content himself with crafting a masterful tribute without aspiring to more. But then I’m probably pushing the director to loftier ambitions than he’s quite interested in climbing. Nevertheless, it is to these heights that Wingard will have to look if he ever hopes to top himself. Given that he’s set to direct an American remake of Kim Jee-Woon’s I Saw The Devil, he may well be easily on his way to doing so anyway.

Wingard also cribs from more than a few other films, too. There’s Hitchcock’s Shadow of A Doubt, which similarly concerns a young woman’s investigation into her family’s strange house guest who overstays his welcome as he oversteps it. There’s Terminator 2‘s expertly crafted barroom brawl replicated here with equal skill featuring instead a lithe but equally sociopathic killer (continuing the T2 connection, Wingard himself described David’s ward in this scene as Edward Furlong’s John Connor had the Terminator corrupted him). There’s even a touch of Let The Right One In, in which the new arrivals in isolated communities correspond with a series of disappearances and bloody crimes. Both films even feature kids striking their bullies in the ear with sticks at the advice of new friends. That Wingard manages these borrowings without making the film feel derivative has as much to say about his skill as it does the strength of his cast and crew.

The soundtrack also deserves special consideration, and not solely for the way in which it succeeds as both loving homage while remaining unmistakably distinct. The super nerds among you might also detect an echo to Halloween III. The correlation is intentional: Wingard cites that film’s soundtrack among one of his favourites, and actually propositioned Steve Moore to score The Guest after he learned the composer had managed to collect every synthesizer instrument used in Halloween III (which he had researched, I might add, from reading the credits on the LP jacket–you can’t make this stuff up). The result harkens back to the heyday of commissioned soundtracks in the 1980s, when filmmakers would collaborate with the most popular musicians to create musical experiences which still resonate today. Without hyperbole, this film’s soundtrack meets, if not surpasses, the very best efforts of Bowie and Queen in their Cat People, Highlander and Flash Gordon glory years.

Dan Stevens as David (AKA The Guest)

The memorable soundtrack and pervading sense of social decay allow Wingard to suggest, if not outright prove, that he is John Carpenter with style. Like Carpenter, Wingard’s film is filled with a distrust for society, obsessed with how quickly and easily the bonds of civility can break down and focuses on individuals who must come to that realization quickly and painfully or die. For example, the surviving brother’s misplaced sense of friendship towards his new surrogate brother, David, stretches almost to the point of fraternal duty; a kindness that will not be repayed, nor go unpunished.

The pretense that humans can live in social harmony is just one of the artifices that Wingard deconstructs. The end of the film plays out entirely within an artificial maze of horrors–and not a haunted house and some critics have mistakenly taken to labeling it. I make this distinction not out of spite, but because the difference is crucial. The finale is a twisting maze of references, tributes, homages and clichés, as Terminator and Halloween smash together, fuse and recombine like mutated DNA. And like any proper labyrinth, a monster waits inside. Perhaps without meaning to, Wingard picks up the thread left by the myth of Theseus and the minotaur and drags the whole lineage of horror into this film. The chase began in a labyrinth millenia ago, and it ends in one–or would if Wingard could not resist the one final tribute to Carpenter. Wingard can’t stop himself from reminding us this is all artificial, it’s all for fun–and what fun it is to be so thrilled.

As a collection of smartly acted and sharply written dialogue scenes, peppered with tautly crafted and expertly edited action scenes, The Guest is a crowd-pleasing tribute to the 80s that also remains undeniably idiosyncratic. Come for the wonderfully strange genre bash, stay for the performances, and leave with the totally radical soundtrack thumping in your ears for days to come.

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