Returning from combat operations in Afghanistan, David (Stevens) visits the family of a dead comrade, and is invited to stay. But is David everything he claims to be?
So what next for the makers of You’re Next? Given their previous credits (including A Horrible Way To Die and the V/H/S anthologies), you might expect another horror film from Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. But although The Guest makes a few forays into that dark territory, and bears the hallmarks of a home-invasion thriller, it’s much too clever and knowing to be easily categorised. It’s almost as if Barrett watched The Stepfather and The Terminator back to back and thought, ‘What if, instead of trying to kill Sarah Connor, the Terminator moved in with her?’
Claiming to be a ‘special ops’ soldier proves advantageous to David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) in two respects: someone skilled at sneaking behind enemy lines should have no problem infiltrating a suburban family, and you can always say, “That’s classified,” if someone starts snooping into your background — for example, if a few locals turn up shot, stabbed or beaten to death. At first, David seems kosher — there’s a picture of him on the Peterson family’s mantelpiece, standing with their killed-in-action son — and it isn’t long before he has inveigled his way into the family, giving Mom (Sheila Kelley) a surrogate son, Dad (Leland Orser) a drinking buddy, and teenagers Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer) someone to crush on/look up to respectively. It’s an oddball performance from Stevens: at first, he seems to be acting as though he’s in a Lynx ad, exacerbated by the fact that every on-screen female does too. But it slowly becomes clear that this strangeness, coupled with his azure eyes and model looks, is precisely what gives David his charisma. Men and women are drawn to his tractor-beam magnetism, seemingly powerless to question his back story, his motives or — even as the bodies pile up — his innocence.
It’s largely thanks to Stevens’ mesmerising performance that The Guest exerts an equally compelling influence over audiences. It has some of the ’80s-pastiche feel of Drive, with an equally well-judged music score, and a less subtle but more satisfying vein of black humour. It should make Wingard an extremely welcome houseguest in Hollywood.
Mainstream audiences may find this too oddball to appreciate as a straight thriller. But tune into its strange frequency and there is much to enjoy perhaps even adore.