Film review of ‘The Guest’

Neither cool nor camp, this guest is not welcome

Dir: Adam Wingard; US thriller, 2014, 100 mins; Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley


Twinkly-eyed British actor Dan Stevens plays David, the eponymous guest, a leanly muscular American lad, who on returning home from his tour in Iraq, pays a visit to the Peterson family home. Having served with their son, who lost his life during combat, David means to carry out his friend’s last wish by telling each of his family how much they were loved. Or so he claims. He is received warmly by the Peterson matriarch who is grateful for every anecdotal scrap David can regurgitate concerning her late son. Despite initial resistance, David soon wins over the rest of the family with his “yes ma’am, no sir” demeanour and begins to make himself an indispensable addition to the household. Until he starts helping where he isn’t wanted. Soon, a series of fatal accidents prove too coincidental to ignore.

Drawl makes yer skin crawl, ey!
Stevens will be familiar to the legions of Downton Abbey viewers, while he was last seen in cinemas in the limp Liam Neeson-starring neo-noir thriller A Walk Among The Tombstones. Here, Stevens combines a winning Tom Cruise smile with Jack Nicholson’s menacing drawl to creepy effect. Before long, however, he’s allowed to indulge in some over-baked Terminator gurning for camera, and carefully constructed sinister soon spills into silly.

While there’s no doubt director Adam Wingard was shooting for a neo-retro vibe (from the 1980s typeface to the synthesiser score, there’s little beyond the occasional smartphone to remind us that the film is set in the present day), both paying tongue-in-cheek homage to the 70s/80s era of slasher cinema while exploiting the aesthetic for all the cool it’s worth, his unbridled enthusiasm has him tumbling over the finish line. After an enjoyable set-up, the film loses its bite and becomes an unforgivable bore when, for the final act, we’re left waiting for the predictable plot to play out.

Drive thrived, this didn’t
An example of this neo-retro approach done right is Ti West’s House Of The Devil (2009), or Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), in which the aesthetic of this beloved era of neon, Walkmans and roller-skates is applied rigorously to a contemporary model, tailored for a post-postmodernist audience to ensure that the film doesn’t fall foul of the same goofs as its predecessors.

For example, Wingard’s indulgence in old school tropes mean the film’s typically improbable ‘surprise’ ending is likely to surprise no-one (should anyone awake care by that point).

It’s this objectivity, a sense of progression, that The Guest lacks most of all. It aspires to the intensity of classic house invasion thrillers such as Cape Fear or Funny Games, but frequently retreats under the cover of what might generously be labelled black comedy in order to justifiably ape the easier targets that once lined VHS bargain bins at your local rental store.

Success within his grasp
Wingard clearly has a deep affection for nasty thrillers of a bygone cinema, illuminating his spaces with pink or green gels and setting the action against an electronic score, but he’s not unique in his affection and unlike several of his contemporaries.

He can’t decide if he wants to go cool or camp – which proves a shame, since he appears capable of pulling off either, but fails at achieving both.