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Low-budget horror maestros Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett strike again, this time with a twisty action-thriller. Following pickups by Magnolia for their contributions to the V/H/S anthology films and Lionsgate for last year’s release of their ingenious You’re Next, theatrical distribution for The Guest seems virtually assured, inevitably followed by ample ancillary activity. Setting aside (if perhaps temporarily) the gory inclinations of their previous films, Wingard and Barrett opt for a psychological-thriller approach, although the results turn out to be somewhat mixed.
Following the combat death of their son Caleb in Afghanistan, Laura (Sheila Kelley) and Spencer (Leland Orser) Peterson are inconsolable, until the arrival of handsome and charming David Collins (Dan Stevens), who claims to have known their son while in the service. He says that he’s traveled directly to their remote home following his medical discharge to fulfill Caleb’s dying wish that he convey his comrade’s love for the family. Relieved to finally make a reassuring connection with their son’s past, the Petersons invite David into there home, where he’s installed in Caleb’s old bedroom.
Their teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) and 20-year-old daughter Anna are taken aback at first by the stranger’s arrival, but their parents are quite pleased with their new houseguest, especially since he’s so meticulously polite, as well as exceedingly helpful around the house. David further ingratiates himself with the kids by beating up some bullies who have been harassing Luke at school and sympathetically counseling Anna when she develops boyfriend troubles.
However, Anna still feels some unease over David’s intrusion into the Peterson’s home, but it’s mixed with excitement over the attention she’s receiving from the good-looking stranger. Still, things don’t seem quite right and when she receives conflicting information from the military on David’s service record, her suspicions spike, exacerbated by what she’s observed of his uncommon strength and agility, as well as the unexplained deaths of several townspeople indirectly connected to the family. When further inquiries provoke all hell to break loose, Anna knows she’ll need all the resources at her disposal to protect her family. A slow-burn approach seems to pose a challenging change-up for the filmmakers, who struggle to build tension as the second acts stretches well past the point when the level of menace should be escalating.
Genre comparisons aside, the expert timing and clever setups that were exhilaratingly employed in You’re Next are mostly absent here. A major subplot involving rogue military contractors appears conspicuously underdeveloped, as do most of the characters involved in the plot strand. Stevens plays David in a fairly restrained manner, which seems somewhat contrary to the characterization, but that’s due more to the direction that Barrett takes with the script. Monroe remains mostly underutilized up through the first hour, then lashes out with a resounding ferocity that could have used more foreshadowing earlier in the film.
Wingard remains firmly in control behind the camera, allowing the film’s slightly under-lit scenes and POV shots to convey a sense of mounting peril. The Halloween-themed decor and activities feel misplaced however, tending to overwork tired conventions practically to the point of irrelevance. Fortunately Barrett and Wingard haven’t lost their ironically humorous touch, as most of the film’s uneasy laughs revolve around upending typical thriller expectations.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Park City at Midnight
Cast: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser, Lance Reddick, Chase Williamson
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriter: Simon Barrett
Producers: Keith Calder, Jessica Calder
Executive Producer: Thorsten Schumacher
Director of photography: Robby Baumgartner
Production designer: Thomas S. Hammock
Costume designer: Kathleen Detoro
Music: Stephen Moore
Editor: Adam Wingard
Sales: HanWay Films No rating, 99 minutes