Itís time to get on the Wingard/Barrett bandwagon. If you missed last yearís Youíre Next, a twisty-turny little revisit to the home-invasion slasher genre, then thatís a good place for you to start. This director/writer team has been on quite a roll with segments in V/H/S, V/H/S 2, The ABCís of Death, and various film shorts before that. The fun continues with The Guest, a nail-biting retro-thriller that borrows much of the look, feel, and sound of the B-movies we watched on cable television back in the Ď80s, while bringing plenty of freshness and originality to a modern-day topic.
Grieving mother Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) is greeted on her doorstep by a recently discharged soldier named David (Downton Abbeyís Dan Stevens) who brings a message of love from her familyís recently deceased son, Caleb, who was killed while the two were serving in Afghanistan.
Weíre immediately taken by Davidís charm and likability as heís invited on an indefinite stay into the Peterson familyís home. He cooks, cleans and helps Laura around the house, aids younger Peterson son Luke (Brendan Meyer) with school bullies, commiserates with patriarch Spencer (Leland Orser) about his dead-end job, and befriends angsty, rebellious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe). Heís the model houseguest. But when he asks a local drug dealer to hook him up with a gun, we suspect heís not all he appears to be.
As unexplained, shockingly violent acts begin to turn up in the normally peaceful New Mexico town, Anna becomes curious about Davidís past. Her suspicions are confirmed when she learns of several red flags involving Davidís history with a secret military contractor. The stage is set for a final bloody confrontation which turns the storyís tone into that of an exuberantly bloody horror film.
As was the case in Youíre Next, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are able to defy cinematic convention by successfully turning their story into something else mid-stream. The tonal shifts in The Guest should not work, but the cheeky homages in Barrettís script and Stevensí study of menace hidden within an Eddie Haskell shell is near genius. And kudos for the filmmakers' uncompromising restraint with the filmís pacing. Itís a slow burn into madness along the lines of Nicholas Winding Refnís Drive, but tinted with shades of anything by John Carpenter. Successfully weaving over-the-top visceral horror elements into a highly refined character study is a difficult technique to master, but theyíve done it twice in a row now, so itís hard to believe this is just luck. These guys are the real deal.
None of it works however, without Dan Stevens successfully playing against his beguiling Downton Abbey repute. Heís equal parts charisma and menace, with a pearly-white sparkle that hides the heart of his coal-black soul. Thereís something particularly disturbing behind the apple-pie charm of a character capable of such violent deeds. But heís so darn likable weíre by his side throughout.
Then thereís professional kiteboarder-turned actress Maika Monroe, who admirably steps into her first major role as tough-girl Anna. She has definite talent and a certain je ne sais quoi that should lead to future starring roles.
Some viewers may not be able to completely digest the filmís somewhat formulaic climax that takes place in a high school Halloween funhouse complete with blinding smoke, boogeymen, and even a hall of mirrors. But others will appreciate the actís dark humor, its unseen twist, and an ability to make us feel itís okay to laugh at the absurdities of the situation.
It would be refreshing to see Wingard and Barrett eventually step outside their shared nostalgia for 1980s thrillers and sci-fi films and begin to display a wit and style of their very own. But if Youíre Next and The Guest are any indicator of things to come, itís only a matter of time before the pair are soon emulated by others.
(Released by Picturehouse and rated ďRĒ for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.