The latest offering from writer and director duo Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die), The Guest is a self-aware, aesthetically accomplished and joyfully-bombastic throwback to ’80s straight-to-video fare. Weaving in elements of thrillers, horror and the Seagal vehicles of yesteryear, the duo have crafted a wonderful homage/parody of the era’s B-movie offerings that manages to never be too on-the-nose with its humour and maintains a fairly entertaining facade of legitimate plot throughout.
The Guest opens on David Collins (Dan Stevens), a marine back from deployment who, following a fairly ominous titlecard, visits the family of Caleb Peterson, a fallen soldier who he served alongside in Afghanistan, to fulfill a promise he made to Caleb as he died. Upon finding out that David has no place to go, the Petersons insist that he stay in Caleb’s room for a few days. While at their home, David begins to bond with their children Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna Peterson (Maike Monroe)1 and, like all the ’80s action movie archetypes before him, proves himself to be a jack of all trades, a strong, sexy, nice guy with numerous talents. He hauls kegs into a house party with little effort, disposes of Anna’s best friend’s ex-boyfriend with a single swing, and even steps in to take revenge on the school bullies in a Seagal-esque bar brawl after they attack Luke in a hilarious riff on the high-school hallway attack scene, which sees a longer-than-comfortable line of tough-guys threaten Luke in single file after he is pushed into a locker. It’s not too long before it becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems, and by the film’s midpoint Wingard and Barrett play their hand and all but ditch The Guest‘s initial roots in realism, going all in on a single gag and succeeding.
While Wingard toys with the plot elements of a bygone era effectively, he doesn’t limit himself in his aping of the signposts of specific genres, allowing gags to spill over into the film’s formal elements. The film inexplicably takes place at Halloween,2 and every sound cue is about as stock-standard and cheesy as they come. Although Wingard and co. are too smart to employ something too overt like the Wilhelm scream, there are inexplicable fading jump-scarish chimes as we jump from sequence to remind us that we’re watching a horror movie, there’s obligatory cliched shots of empty high-school hallways, every kill is crafted to create an interesting visual composition,3 and there’s even an intentionally (hilariously) fake Google.
To call the film a simple exercise in homage and parody, however, would be disingenuous; there’s also a subtle takedown of the US culture of mythologising the military underscoring the feature, some truly impressive cinematography from Robby Baumgartner that perfectly frames every moment with a wonderful multifaceted aesthetic,4 and an excellent pumping synth score from Steve Moore. Perhaps its biggest asset is the fact that it never breaks character; sure, there are moments where David effectively winks at the camera – a later scene at a diner being a prime example – but its self-awareness is never overt, far more subtle than something like Astron-6’s entertaining but underwhelming The Editor, and much more akin to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s brilliant fever-dream The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. It works nicely as a sort of post-Drive film, operating in a cinematic landscape in which it’s okay to make dumb, single-concept genre flicks so long as they have a strong aesthetic, tone, and sense of direction to back them up.
While it’s great that The Guest has finally hit Australian shores just under a year after its international release, it’s a shame that a film this strong from two known quantities can be overlooked by Australian distributors for such a long period of time.5 It’s understandable why Australian distributors have been wary; the film’s core demographic are notorious pirates, and given the (arguable) theatrical failure of Lionsgate’s prior-Wingard and Barrett gamble on You’re Next, the duo are not the safest of bets, no matter how good their content may be. Kudos should be given to both Rialto Distribution and the Melbourne International Film Festival for taking a risk on a film, albeit one as strong as The Guest, that has been available on VOD and home video internationally for almost a year. If their willingness to actively push a film in this situation is not a testament to the quality of their product, I don’t know what is.
There aren’t many films operating within this homage/parody mode that are this well executed,6 nor are there many that hold up for those not in on the joke. When you take into account the level of accomplishment in cinematographer Baumgartner’s work, combined with Moore’s fantastic synth-heavy score, The Guest cements itself as an absolute must-see, another excellently executed project from Wingard and Barrett, two of the most impressive filmmakers to emerge out of the so-called ‘mumblegore’ scene, one that even rivals their previous stellar effort You’re Next.
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