Many horror films announce to us in advance that something bad will happen sooner or later, and “The Guest” makes its ominous announcement a little too much. Besides the occasional appearance of moody music, we are served with 1) a mysterious stranger who is super-duper creepy with his utmost courteous manner, 2) plenty of props including those ubiquitous jack-o-lanterns which always remind us of the approaching Halloween Day every 5 or 10 minutes, and 3) a shady supporting character who may tell a bit about the true identity of this creepy stranger in question. This set-up is actually amusing at times, and the movie works as a tense and compelling psychological thriller during its first two acts, but then it becomes less interesting as it switches its mode during the third act involved with lots of violence.
At the beginning, we see a young guy coming into some town, and the guy introduces himself as “David” to Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) and her family. Laura and her husband Spencer (Leland Orser) recently lost their son Caleb who died during his military service in Afghanistan, and David (Dan Stevens) says he was one of Caleb’s close friends. It seems he really knew Caleb as shown in one of the photos from Caleb, and Laura welcomes David into her house without any question even though she have never heard about him from her deceased son.
The other family members do not welcome David much at first, but he knows how to ingratiate himself with others, and he smoothly insinuates himself in the household. Spencer is a bit suspicious about David, but then he becomes nicer to David as enjoying several bottles of beer with him, and he even confides to David on the current difficulty at his workplace as if David were his close friend. In case of Caleb’s teenager brother Luke (Brendan Meyer), David approaches to him like a new older brother to lean on, and he begins to gain Luke’s trust especially after he swiftly takes care of the big boys who have been bullying Luke at the school.
In contrast, Anna (Maika Monroe), Caleb’s sister, feels something not so right about this mysterious guy who may not tell everything about himself to her and her family, but then she finds herself attracted to him even though she currently has a boyfriend. After all, this is a good-looking guy in nice physical condition to draw any girl’s attention, and Anna’s close friend Kristen (Tabatha Shaun) is certainly impressed a lot by his considerate attitude as well as how he subdues her bothersome ex-boyfriend during an evening party.
Anna’s suspicion is increased more when she happens to know that David does have secrets behind him. It seems David is a fugitive running away from some people, and it looks like these people want to catch him for covering up some secret government project. As soon as Anna’s inquiry is received at the military department, they become ready to track him down, and you can see a very big trouble is approaching to the Petersons.
The director Adam Wingard and the screenplay writer Simon Barrett previously worked together in another horror thriller film “You’re Next” (2011). I did not like that film mainly because of its incoherent plot and superficial characterization, but I appreciated their attempt to play with genre conventions although the result was not as successful as they intended. While it is amusing to watch how a typical situation of home invasion movies is turned upside down in that film, it does not have much substance to support that interesting reversal, and that makes the film less engaging as it approaches to its inevitable conclusion.
In case of “The Guest”, Wingard shows a more assured direction in his competent job of setting the mood and background, and he also provides enough substance for maintaining the tension to hold our interest. David’s gradual manipulation of the Petersons has several intriguing dark moments, and his growing relationship with Luke is particular disturbing to watch; he casually suggests violence to Luke as a way to cope with bullying, and Luke does not mind about that at all even when he clearly sees what David is capable of.
As an outsider who may be far more dangerous than he seems on the surface, Dan Stevens gives a chilling performance with sly dark humor, and I especially like one effective scene in which he and Laura come to meet Luke’s school principal after Luke’s violent incident with one of his tormentors at the school. The principle is initially adamant about his decision on how he will punish Luke, but then he is slowly cornered by David step by step as David calmly points out how the situation can turn out to be very disadvantageous to not only the school but also the principle himself. Never raising his voice, Stevens deftly conveys subtle menace behind his seemingly civilized delivery of lines, and, as watching his character getting what he wants in the end of this scene, I was reminded again of why it is sometimes fun to see smart bad guys getting away with many things even when we are disgusted or horrified by their behaviors.
Compared to “You’re Next”, “The Guest” shows considerable improvements, and the filmmakers behind it succeeds in generating more fun to be shared with their audiences. I enjoyed Dan Stevens’ good performance, and the other actors including Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer are believable in their roles although their characters are basically stock characters to be harmed or scared. It is sort of disappointing that the third act goes on autopilot and then ultimately arrives at a flaccid presentation of a certain horror film cliché associated with countless mad killer movies, but it has its own fair share of dark fun while equipped with the most impressive Halloween school event I have ever seen from recent films, and you may want to rent it someday if you have some free time to spend.