English actor/Greek god Dan Stevens plays Dan Collins, a soldier who unexpectedly shows up at the house of a family grieving the loss of their eldest son who died in Afghanistan. Dan tells them that he was a friend of their son Caleb. He stays at their house "for a couple of days" and finds himself becoming involved in their lives, helping them with their problems. The mother is still not over the death of her eldest son, the father is a drinker bitter at being passed over for a promotion, the son is being bullied and the daughter's boyfriend is a deadbeat. Dan is polite, handsome, charismatic and happy to help them. He's perfect. Very perfect actually, like suspiciously perfect. You see where this is going.
The thing about thrillers is that once you've seen a couple of them you get a general idea of the plot points coming over the horizon, so here more than ever tone and atmosphere are important and The Guest nails both of those. The directing/writing team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett also made the sleeper hit horror movie You're Next and their retro, stripped back style is perfectly suited to this type of film. It knows just how much irony to employ, veering from tense thriller to dark comedy without missing a beat. One moment of friendly advice from Dan to the bullied son in particular left me reeling. It does suffer from third act problems, trying to up the stakes for the climax it goes a little too silly, nearly loses that perfectly weighted balance of tone and tries explaining (poorly) things that don't really need to be explained. For the most part though, it's a film that knows exactly what it is and is happy to bring audiences along for the ride.
With it's Halloween setting and 80's style score it's clear to see the influence John Carpenter had on the filmmakers and, as a huge fan of Carpenter's, I'm happy to see more films like that getting made. For me his kinds of films are the 'popcorn movies' that people advocate for so much, films with both a sense of style and a sense of humour, rather than films that are frequently upheld as 'popcorn', which just have contempt for their audience. It's pleasing to see a film trying to be 'scary' without having to resort to sudden jump scares, confident instead that it can create an uneasy atmosphere using an ominous note on the score here or the right pan from the camera there. Or just by using Dan Steven's pretty, lunatic face.
It seems like Hollywood is going to be giving former Downton Abbey star Stevens a pretty decent push this year (he's also going to be in a Night at the Museum sequel and that A Walk Among The Tombstones) and on this evidence it's a good call. Stevens is full Zack Morris here, equally adapt at laying on the charm and being a manipulative sociopath. The film wouldn't stand out nearly as much without his performance, which manages to keep you guessing with regards to his true intentions for as long as possible. There will definitely be people coming out of this film rooting for him in spite of how menacing he comes across. Maika Monroe plays the daughter and while her role is pretty standard fare, she does a good job portraying her going back and forth in her trust of Dan. Plus, according to Wikipedia, she is a "professional kiteboarder" so uh. There's that.
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Frequently I find myself frustrated flicking through Netflix, spending minutes at a time browsing the same list of films looking for something to watch, even though I already know what's there. I want something that's not too long, not too serious but, you know, not shite. On occasions like that, The Guest is the kind of thing I'm looking for. I strongly recommend seeing it in the cinema though, where the full sensory experience of the violent visuals and cool soundtrack (if you liked Drive's music you'll dig the soundtrack from Steve Moore) can be enjoyed. I can only hope it succeeds through word-of-mouth the way You're Next did,