When Adam Wingard’s You’re Next began to surface in 2011, the buzz followed quickly. Hailed as a fresh take on the home invasion horror genre, the film starred indie actors like Amy Seimetz and indie directors like Ti West and Joe Swanberg, and felt entirely different from standard takes on that particular subgenre of horror. You’re Next had its problems, but it also showed some incredible promise for Wingard’s next project. Three years later, that project has emerged in the form of The Guest, another twist on an established horror subgenre, and an opportunity for Wingard to capitalize on his momentum.
The Guest opens on an unnamed man jogging down a rural road with a large military knapsack over his shoulder. It is soon discovered that this man is David (Dan Stevens), who arrives at the front door of the Peterson family claiming he served with their deceased son in the military, and had been tasked with coming home to them to make sure they were doing well. The son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), is a precocious youth but is constantly beset upon by bullies at high school. Daughter Anna (Maika Moore) has a shady, drug-dealer boyfriend. The father, Spencer (Leland Orser), is stuck in a soul-sucking dead end job and is aggressively developing a dependency on alcohol and the mother, Laura (Sheila Kelley) is still coping with the loss of her son. The family has their issues, but David’s presence does not do much to calm the tension. While he seems to be an easygoing, incredibly polite man with an otherworldly charisma, it becomes clear quickly that there is much more to him than he initially let on. As he begins to involve himself in the lives of the Petersons, mysterious deaths begin to spring up all around him, and he certainly is not who he says he is as the military (led by everyone’s favorite paranoid conspiracy actor Lance Reddick) closes in.
It is impossible to discuss the relative merits of The Guest without leading with the guest himself, Dan Stevens. Predominantly known for Downton Abbey, this is surely a departure from what those familiar with him would expect, though that is not immediately clear as the film begins to build its momentum. Stevens’ David has impossibly blue eyes, razor sharp and capable of cutting diamonds, and an icy, piercing stare that constantly hints at something sinister beneath the surface, even as he genially shares a drink with Spencer or makes jack o’lanterns with Luke. Stevens here, both in appearance and feel, seems like the intersection of Ryan Gosling’s taciturn turns in Drive and Only God Forgives with Chris Pine’s take on James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboots, and has no trouble commanding the screen no matter whether he’s actually present in a scene or not. He has an effortless, dangerous chemistry with the rest of the cast, shifting moods and allegiances at the drop of a dime, making sure anyone in the audience would be a fool to look away for even a second. Stevens is the reason The Guest is so gripping, but he is not the only performance of merit among Wingard’s cast. Meyer and Moore have to make their own transitions from sullen, disinterested and lonely youths into the emotional core of the film’s climax, and they do so with no less acclaim than their magnetic costar. It is not a large cast, but everyone has brought their best.
Wingard continues to develop behind the camera, and The Guest is a strong evolution of his visual style. Even in the quieter moments, his horror pedigree shines through, and he builds tension throughout with hefty use of austere angles and sharp edges. As the film progresses and settles into something more akin to its genre, Wingard’s camera comes alive, embracing his slasher-ier tendencies. It is a delicate tightrope to walk, as moving from a unique narrative into something baldly genre-influenced can be an issue (the destruction of Sunshine that happens in its third act leaps to mind), but Wingard and Stevens layer in the possibilities of the turn early enough that the progression feels natural. The climax is particularly joyful, revelling in its genre trappings to the highest degree. It approaches the horizon of self-parody (something You’re Next did willfully), but Stevens is always there to pull it back and ground things even as they balloon into craziness.
Honestly, what makes The Guest so satisfying in its execution is how it so wondrously cuts the tension with laughs, but those laughs never undermine the spirit of the film or betray the overall build toward the finale. There is a lot of the spirit of Sam Raimi in the way Wingard approaches his material; he may not be as interested in The Three Stooges as Raimi was during his Evil Dead days, but both are marked by a key understanding of just how much humor is enough to allow for the horror elements to retain their weight. As an example, the setting for the final confrontation is a little absurd, but that silliness that glides along beneath the proceedings never undercuts it. Instead, the climax is rollicking and wild, making that smile that creeps in get wider and wider. The Guest is not striving to be some grand new take on horror and its subgenres; it is content in its role as an expertly crafted, often hilarious and deliriously entertaining spectacle that never loses its way. Dan Stevens will be a star if he wants to be, and Adam Wingard has continued on his upward momentum within the horror/suspense world.