Jack Warner, one of the founding Warner Brothers, had a simple test every film should pass – whether or not the viewer would want to stay and watch regardless of needing the toilet. He famously dubbed Bonnie and Clyde a “three piss picture” using this rating method, proving that even a cinematic masterpiece had to contend with an elderly man’s bladder on the path to critical respect. The Guest, the deliriously silly new film from You’re Next director Adam Wingard, passes this test with flying colours (believe me- I was in agony trying to refrain from pissing myself during the final half hour). It’s a movie that even its biggest detractors wouldn’t want to walk out on to use the bathroom; it’s not the best film of the year, but it sure as hell is the least boring.
One morning, a man called David (Dan Stevens, chewing the scenery so much you can see the bite marks on the side of the frame) appears at the home of the Peterson family. He was a friend and fellow squad member of their recently deceased son Caleb in Afghanistan; he’s visiting them as it was what Caleb would have wanted. After insisting he won’t overstay his welcome, the family instead embraces him with open arms- he’s a surrogate son to the constantly arguing mother and father (Sheila Kelly and Leland Orser), a mentor to youngest son Luke in need of an older brother (Brendan Myer) and something of a potential sex object to the older sister Laura (Maika Monroe) with a string of delinquent boyfriends under her belt. As this is a film, his good ole’ boy southern charm only gets him so far; people in the town with connections to the family start dying, with Laura the first to point fingers at him. She researches his backstory and finds out that the military have declared him officially dead- but why is there a photo of him and her brother in Afghanistan hanging in the living room?
The film has an incredibly 80’s style, due to both the soundtrack (the best of the year) and the fact it feels very John Carpenter-inspired in tone, not least because Dan Stevens is channelling Kurt Russell in Escape from New York in the quietly menacing lead role here. Yet as indebted to the movies of the decade that style forgot as it is, this is a thriller that could only be made by a contemporary filmmaker; after all, films inspired by the 80’s are far more stylish than the ones made in the decade itself. It takes the post-Vietnam anti-war paranoia of films like First Blood and applies them to an equally ridiculous contemporary setting; like John Rambo in that inaugural Rambo outing, “David” (as he’s officially credited) is a victim of the Afghanistan war system that he was placed in, with many residents seeing his violent outbursts as PTSD symptoms. However, he’s more like John Rambo in the sequels, a merciless killing machine that will shoot whatever gets in his way.
Another iconic 80’s character he reminded me of was Freddy Krueger – yet this was more like the character in The Nightmare on Elm Street sequels where he paradoxically became a character the audience was supposed to root for. He puts the family and the town at risk – yet when he’s beating up a gang of bullies in a bar, or blackmailing the head teacher of the local high school not to expel the son as he was a victim of a “hate crime”, he becomes weirdly endearing. The film wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for Dan Stevens’ performance; it’s perfectly pitched so that we can equally buy him as a bad-ass movie icon and as the bogeyman murdering the townsfolk. I’ve never seen Downton Abbey, the TV show that’s made him internationally famous, but something tells me he’s never been allowed to throw grenades, beat up teenagers and murder people in a hall of mirrors in that show; this is presumably him playing against type, but considering I’ve never seen his “type”, this registers to me as a star making performance.
Credit should also be given to screenwriter Simon Barrett, teaming up with director Wingard again following the cult success of You’re Next (which is coincidentally referenced repeatedly here – look out for wolf masks in party scenes and those two words spray painted in bright red during the climactic maze scene). I didn’t find that film as good as many other people, especially considering it wore its influences more openly on its sleeve rather than do anything interesting with them. The Guest manages to streamline its obvious influences (John Carpenter’s filmography, basically) into something original, somehow managing to achieve the impossible feat of bettering those movies. Barrett’s screenplay is very often laugh-out-loud funny; moments of sheer terror are followed by insane jokes that don’t compromise the tone. It’s a melting pot of different genre elements, yet it all combines to make a fully satisfying meal.
John Carpenter and Kurt Russell were renowned for repeatedly making great movies that were box office failures; they were too weird for mainstream audiences, even if in retrospect they seem to have infinite commercial appeal. In an ideal world, The Guest should be a massive crowd-pleasing hit of the kind Carpenter should have had; sadly, there were only two other people at the screening I attended. Do yourself a favour and go watch The Guest now. Why wait until it becomes a cult classic?