A good, bitter joke drives The Guest, obscured by plain view in the setup. A man claiming to be David Collins (Dan Stevens) shows up at the home of Spenser and Laura Peterson (Leland Orser and Sheila Kelley), telling them that he served as a soldier in Afghanistan with their son, Caleb, who died in the war. After a few short conversations, and just a little mutual prodding, the Petersons take David at his word, with little resistance or awkwardness, inviting him to stay at the house until he can figure out what he’s doing. Anna (Maika Monroe), the couple’s eldest living child, is seen as a bit of a turncoat for daring to question David in a manner that most would find reasonable, particularly as bodies begin to coincidentally pile up around him. Anna’s brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer), a bullied teen serving out his time at the local high school, doesn’t care either way, because David, worst case, is killing the right people.
The Guest is a member of a particular horror subgenre that was briefly popular in the 1980s and the early 1990s, and which probably derived indirectly from classics like Repulsion. Most entries, like this film, are titled after the social function served by the villain, who’s normally a deranged stranger who ingratiates him- or herself into the hero’s family to disastrous ends: The Hitcher, The Stepfather, Single White Female, The Temp, and so on. All of these movies depend on extraordinary coincidence as well as gullibility on the part of the victims so as to ensure that the machinery of the plot runs as efficiently as possible. The Guest is no exception, though like The Stepfather, the contrivances of the central family’s gullibility have been explicitly worked into the story to serve a resonant, nearly subterranean purpose. On one level, the family’s acceptance of David is poignant, as the stranger is obviously playing the role of surrogate Caleb. On another level, this dependency is satirical of the guilty reverence we often extend to returning soldiers. We are to “support our troops” at all costs with no questions asked, and David, who’s eventually revealed to have a sci-fi version of PTSD, ensures that those costs are unavoidably colossal.
The best scene brings this subtext to the surface with disconcerting bluntness. David is at a party with Anna, and he stands out as the older, extraordinarily handsome stranger who’s come from nowhere. After having already impressed all the young women (and shamed the young men) by carrying two kegs by himself at the same time, and after effortlessly sleeping with the party’s hostess, a stoner says that he supports what David does, i.e. his military service. And David, up until this point Mr. Disingenuous Southern Charmer, calls him out on it in a manner reminiscent of Joe Pesci’s “what’s so funny” bit from Goodfellas. The stoner is befuddled, as he was merely voicing a nationally sanctioned and encouraged platitude, while David, who’s directly acquainted with the atrocities those platitudes mask, acknowledges the guy’s half-hearted compliment for the act of conformist thoughtlessness it truly is.
The Guest could use more scenes like that, just as it could more elegantly detail the ways in which the Peterson household is effected internally by David’s actions. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett tend to alternately pair David with a single family member at a time, and though the pace is incredibly fluid, the narrative structurally resembles a series of short films, and Spenser, who’s mannered and annoying even for a Leland Orser character, gets short shrift. It’s also a pity that the sexual tension that pervades the wonderful party sequence isn’t allowed to inform David’s interactions with Laura, or that Anna’s loyalties to her family and boyfriend aren’t more significantly complicated by the potential sexual frustration of her living a door down the hall from the hottest new guy in town.
But these are minor issues. Wingard and Barrett have made major leaps as filmmakers since their diverting but convoluted You’re Next. That film never transcended its many derivations, but The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s, or 1980s-sounding, music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. There isn’t an inch of fat on this film, but it has a wandering quality that’s most apparent when we’re allowed to see Anna looking at David with a mix of awe and contempt as the music continues to play, or when a woman is shockingly killed in a diner to the accompaniment of “Because I Love You (The Postman Song).” These pauses contrast with the tactile neon imagery and the efficient editing to create a hallucinatory effect that doesn’t aggressively announce itself as “hallucinatory,” and is all the scarier for it. The Guest is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever.
The colors really pop on this transfer, which is important to a movie that’s meant to evoke the lonely neon hues of many vintage 1980s thrillers. Reds, particularly in the The Lady from Shanghai–informed hall-of-mirrors sequence, are gorgeously vibrant, and the intentional grain texture, meant to give The Guest a somewhat timeless look, comes through subtly. The intentional glare of certain lighting is crisp, and the blacks are beautifully inky. The sound mix, which should be heard loud, boasts impressive nuance and heft.
The audio commentary and deleted scenes offer an informative portrait of the process of paring a movie down to its ultimate essentials. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett memorably discuss the opening they ditched to move the story faster, and the soundness of that instinct is confirmed by the footage that’s included on the disc. (The film’s hard, direct story beats have been painstakingly honed.) For people less directly concerned with filmmaking 101, there’s plenty of general horror-movie nerdery, such as a shout-out to Scream and a bunch of other influences. The commentary is engagingly conversational, and the deleted scenes, uninteresting in their own right (which is the point), offer an artistically useful testament to killing your darlings. A brief Q&A with Dan Stevens is promotional filler.
The Guest connects 1980s horror-movie nostalgia cleverly and implicitly to the real fears that haunt contemporary American life. Universal’s gorgeous transfer will hopefully speed up the film’s predestined cult rediscovery.