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“THE GUEST” (TIFF Movie Review)

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Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s THE GUEST qualifies as horror for lack of any other easy genre classification (well, aside from a delightfully cheeky Halloween themed climax). The duo have delivered a project that mixes their trademark dark humor and hyper cineliteracy with elements of 80s horror, thrillers, and action flicks, topped off with a light dusting of John Carpenter. It’s a movie that Cannon Films would have been proud to slap their logo across during the neon decade and yet it also feels contemporary. The film strives for nothing more than pure, unadulterated, unapologetic entertainment and so delivers on that promise, you can’t help but sit back and smile.

Opening with an ominous tracking of the protagonist running across barren landscape before cutting directly to the title with hash horror signifier music, THE GUESTsoon settles in to a slow and relaxed rhythm that builds tension so gradually, you hardly even notice until it’s too late. Dan Stevens stars as David, a bright and endlessly polite Iraq war vet who arrives unannounced on the Peterson family’s doorstep claiming to be a friend of their killed-in-action son. They welcome him in and quickly come to love the guy for his impossibly (and eventually creepily) kind ways. He listens to Dad (Leland Orser) whine about work problems over booze, provides surrogate son duties for mom (Sheila Kelley), shows an interest in their goth daughter’s (Maika Monroe) music, and acts as a role model and protector for their son (Brendan Meyer). Everything seems just a little too perfect until it’s very much not. People are dying, stories don’t add up, and eventually there are machine guns.

Much of the film hinges on Dan Stevens’ truly wacko lead performance. It’s not easy to make kind feel creepy, but he does so and Wingard/Barrett provide him with no shortage of bizarre situations to play in. At times it’s as goofy as carrying two kegs into a house party with ease or calmly tossing off loaded lines like “money is easy to find.”

Eventually, things turn dark and so does Stevens without ever losing his all-American boy scout facade. Think of it as the evil side of the Captain America fantasy and Wingard/Barret’s eventual reveals for the character fit that model well. The rest of the central cast are strong, particularly Leland Orser (best known for his intensely stressed turn in SEVEN, but far more low key here) and the quirky, skeptcial Maika Monroe. Still, THE GUEST is Dan Stevens’ show and it’s a fantastic showcase ranging from kind to psychotic with million dollar style.

Barrett’s script is lean. Much like YOU’RE NEXT, the opening can feel like it’s faffing about, but it’s specifically on point and headed towards carefully constructed carnage. Wingard often presents long, wide takes of the Carpenter mold and pulls similar tension from the technique while still delivering a distinct style all his own. A carefully curated, 80s-flavored score completes the package as it rockets towards a special brand of old school, R-rated entertainment that feels all too rare these days.

If nothing else, THE GUEST cements Wingard and Barrett as a pair of showman and entertainers striving to push, pull, and twist the audience down a path of pure genre joy. If you’re not laughing at its deliberate jokes, you’ll delight at the audacity of the set pieces or unexpected tonal shifts. Light flourishes of political subtext are there and welcome, but really all Wingard and Barrett want is to provide audiences of a VHS mixtape within a contemporary narrative.

They did it, THE GUESTis a blast.

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THE GUEST plays the Toronto International Film Festival Saturday, September 13th and Sunday, September 14th. The film is out in the U.S. from Picturehouse on Wednesday, September 17th.

 

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About the author
Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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