Horror-Thriller "The Guest" Hits Cult Film Bullseye

Last year’s home invasion pic “You’re Next” made director Adam Wingard a known commodity in the world of low-budget genre-hopping indies – the same creative sandbox that birthed superstar filmmakers James Cameron (“Titanic”) and Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”). Wingard’s latest – the similarly elastic “The Guest” – further cements his status as an emerging master of the movie mixtape. Joined again by writer and co-conspirator Simon Barrett, the two spin equal doses of nostalgia and ingenuity into the kind of immediate pop artifact that’s sure to keep many veteran filmmakers awake at night.

Like “You’re Next,” “The Guest” is full up with narrative issues, but its shoestring budget renders its flaws immaterial. Released in August of 2013, “You’re Next” made an astonishing $25 million on a $1 million budget, but “The Guest” was shot a month prior to that release, making Wingard’s progression in the face of an equally limited budget all the more impressive. Where “You’re Next” was a punchy love note to Wes Craven (“Scream”), “The Guest” is a full-on wet kiss to John Carpenter (“Halloween”), atmospheric in the extreme and gilded with slithering synth lines and unnerving camera work.

But is “The Guest” a horror film at all? Its mysteries are best left to the screen, where Wingard rockets blind into the darkness with a protagonist and antagonist who might be one in the same. An hour in, it remains unclear what’s unfolding, the pic’s ghostlike narrative slipping in and out of sight at every turn. Wingard and Barrett only fumble when it comes to the inevitable reveal of hidden exposition, but even then the story allows for a delightfully weird climax that’s more 80s music video – complete with dry ice – than modern thriller.

Dan Stevens (TV’s “Downton Abbey”) plays David, the eponymous guest and recently discharged soldier making a surprise visit to the family of one of his fallen brothers in arms. David is a riddle that’s impossible to solve, quickly endearing himself to his newly-acquainted hosts but showing flashes of violence along the way. In befriending the teenaged Luke (Brendan Meyer) and twenty year-old Laura (Maika Monroe), the character is burdened with a token “beating up school bullies” scene along with shades of an unrequited crush, but none of the pic’s subplots are what they seem. Or are they? We’re kept in the dark but feverishly interested all the same.

Playing on the kind of creeping fear inherent in opening one’s home to a stranger, the screenplay is utterly without a moral compass for much of its running time. It lets us writhe in the abyss with its characters before evolving into a stylish amalgam of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” and Craven’s own “A Nightmare On Elm Street.” In this diseased desert of ethical apathy, Stevens commands the screen, mad blank stare and overly confident posture alternatively suggesting hollowness and depth. We’re left unsure if he’s a ticking time bomb or merely a wristwatch, a narrative freefall that’s never less than thrilling.

The film’s back half suffers from logical gaps and gets too silly for its own good – veteran character actor Lance Reddick gets saddled with the worst of some bad dialogue – but it’s here that Wingard impossibly expands the film beyond its previous borders, making its world feel as full as any with ten times the budget. Setting the film around Halloween – a simple conceit that goes unused in genre filmmaking far too often – deepens the screenplay’s playfully sinister bent.

With a narrative that’s difficult to categorize and hinges on withheld information – both techniques employed by “You’re Next” – some might pigeonhole Wingard as a one trick pony. But he does it better here, effectively fine-tuning his style. His talent practically jumps off the screen, genre lines be damned, and “The Guest” is an even better jumping-off point than its predecessor. As a piece of pseudo-horror, it’s a nice feat. As a signpost of talent ready to move into the next phase of promising careers, it’s downright compelling.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)
Also watch: “Halloween III: Season Of The Witch”

“The Guest”
Release Date: September 17, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Picturehouse
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriter: Simon Barrett
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality)