“A Horrible Way to Die,” “You’re Next,” “What Fun We’re Having,” “Autoerotic,” segments in the anthologies “VHS,” “VHS 2,” and “The ABCs of Death”: director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are probably the pair of collaborators who have made the most movies that you haven’t seen. You should rectify that — start with the gleefully bloody horror comedy “You’re Next” — and prepare yourself for “The Guest,” a peculiar mix of suspense, humor, violence, and beloved genre tropes.
Somewhere in the American southwest, the Petersons are grieving the death of their son and brother, Caleb, when his Army buddy, David Collins (Dan Stevens), shows up unannounced to bring his condolences. Humble, unassuming, and almost supernaturally polite, David is welcomed first by Caleb’s mother (Sheila Kelley) and then by his father (Leland Orser), who takes a little convincing but quickly warms up to the stranger.
David is invited to stay indefinitely. Caleb’s troublesome teenage sister, Anna (Maika Monroe), is suspicious but bedazzled by David’s dreamy blue eyes; her brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer), finds in him a surrogate for his lost big brother. David helps Luke with bullies at school, commiserates with Mr. Peterson about his dead-end job, keeps a watchful eye on Anna at a party. He’s the perfect houseguest and a comforting temporary addition to the family.
Naturally, he’s not all he appears to be. The film cheekily tips us off to this with a shot of David, alone in the guest room, getting an intense look on his face for no reason other than to tip us off that he’s not all he appears to be. Wingard and Barrett thus establish that there are meta-layers here, that our familiarity with movies like this is meant to be part of the fun.
And which “movies like this” are we talking about? The ones we watched on cable in the ’80s that combined action, horror, and sex without definitively belonging to any particular genre. It’s “The Terminator,” “The Stepfather,” “Halloween,” “The Thing,” and all the other movies about mysterious strangers with secrets to hide. Dan Stevens, best known as the upper-crust Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” is surprisingly ripped and deadly as David, and the film lets him play up the character’s all-things-to-all-people charm. There’s something particularly unsettling about chilling deeds being performed by someone this handsome, a fact that the filmmakers are well aware of.
Just like a lot of the films it emulates, “The Guest” eventually gets too formulaic and silly. The climax is set in an improbably elaborate Halloween spook alley, where Anna and Luke do the same dumb things characters tend to do in these situations (like wounding the enemy and assuming you’ve killed him). The resolution doesn’t provide enough satisfying answers about David’s past or his motivations; we keep waiting for one more revelation or twist that will bring it home, and it never comes. But it’s a fun ride as far as it goes, an affectionate homage to the messy, shambling semi-classics of yesteryear.
B- (1 hr., 39 min.; )
Originally published at GeekNation.