Skip to main content

I’m a friend of the family.

The Guest
(2014)

(SPOILERS) What if Michael Myers were a personable young man with excellent manners and piercing blue eyes? Would you let him in your family home? That’s at least part of what director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are angling for in this blackly comic ‘80s genre binge. The Guest is a well-made little B-movie, and has been audibly embraced by film geeks and critics alike. I wanted to like it more than I did. It is certainly, like a great many (too many?) movies at the moment, upfront with its influences, but it isn’t as rapier sharper as its knowing tone suggests. It’s engagingly absurdist psycho fluff, but Barrett and Wingard only occasionally rise above the tropes and references they’ve borrowed wholesale.


Ex-marine David Collins (Dan Stevens) shows up at the door of the Peterson family, claiming to have served with their deceased oldest son Caleb. He tells them he was with Caleb at the end, that he wanted David to check on them all, make sure they are okay. With smooth certitude he wins over even the less certain family members, and before long he is sorting out school bullies and securing dad that promotion he needs. In an ultra-violent manner.


The first half of The Guest is a sly riff on ‘stranger comes to town and sets things right’ movies. We’ve seen this in everything from westerns (Shane) to broad comedies (Uncle Buck), and there’s wit in the way David inveigles himself with the family with his “aw shucks, ma’am” politeness. But Wingard and Barret know they hold some good cards, and can’t resist getting over-excited and showing their hands. They’ve talked about how they wanted to start the picture off seriously and gradually expose its humorous side as they progressed, at which they are reasonably successful (a few rocky section aside).


Yet it’s always clear that they are playing with genre conventions. The soundtrack pulses with the ominous thunder of a horror movie from the first shot. Pumpkins announce the Halloween setting and a synth score inhabits a milieu decades past (Steve Moore’s score is a perfect throwback, but overwhelms the picture at times). The family woes (grieving wife, beleaguered husband who drinks to much, daughter with a drug dealer boyfriend, younger brother bullied at school) are instantly familiar. And when David is alone, his face becomes an impassive mask announcing an agenda beyond simple benefaction.


The idea that John Candy might turn out to be a knife-wielding (or golf club wielding) maniac holds a certain mirth, and Stevens, buffed up to his eyebrows, hits the tone perfectly. He confidently treads the line between guileless and intense (the scene where he is preparing lunch, playing with an extremely large kitchen knife as he explains himself to the now slightly suspicious family is masterfully edgy) and crosses to either side as necessary. When the violence breaks out big time, he carries the casual air and immaculate manners of one used to such nuisance; Grosse Point Blank (another ‘80s nostalgia piece) comes to mind, high school warfare played with wink and a grin.


But Wingard doesn’t quite nail it, and the script is a tad too eager. David taking down the high school bullies in a bar is classic material, but I found it slightly off. The spoilt teenagers react with the “movie” moves of a gang of street punks, and the results feel over-telegraphed (the short, sharp shock of Bad Santa was a far better cure for bullying). In contrast, David’s persuasive tone as sly manipulation of the headmaster when Luke (Chloë Moretz lookalike Brendan Meyer) is due to be expelled hits a more satisfying balance.


Wingard and Barret clearly feel compelled to cut to the chase, and the reveal that the military are after David, whoever David is, comes in a rush of half-exposition and a couple of SUVs posing as an entire SWAT team. David’s true identity is left intentionally vague, along with the military test programme from which he has escaped a week before. We know he isn’t the real David (both Luke and Lance Reddick’s Major Carver say as much) and that he his programming requires that, should his identity be compromised, he kills those who know about it. At one point I wondered, given the heavy visual clues, and the fact that David chooses Caleb’s family to intrude upon (even given his promise, it seems remarkably convenient), if David would be revealed as Michael Myers in all but name; that he is Caleb, adding queasy subtext to scenes such as the ones where Anna (Maika Monroe) bumps into him coming out of the shower buffed and Laura (Sheila Kelley) is expressing her gratitude while hanging out the washing.


That would probably have been a little too on the nose, but the invulnerable climax (stabbed, shot, but still he doesn’t go down) is completely Halloween, even if the fireman disguise is a standard thriller/serial killer staple (The Silence of the Lambs, Leon). Instead, Wingard lays down a strong Terminator vibe. For me, that’s the problem with the picture; it feels a little too much like a mash-up without ever quite ironing out the bumps and becoming its own unique thing. Scenes echo scenes we’ve seen before too strongly (even bad films; killing the gun dealer recalls The Jackal) and the marketers understandably fixate on the elements everyone is noticing (see the poster below).


I found myself less than enthused by the middle section; while there are some well-staged explosive thrills once it shifts into action territory, the movie becomes much more obvious and less arresting. The Guest clearly enjoys shifting gears in respect of the kind of picture it wants to be; domestic drama, psycho-ville, conspiracy thriller, black comedy, retro-horror. How successful it is may be down to personal taste. The murder of Laura is a masterful “so this is where it’s going” turning point (“I really am sorry about this, Mrs Peterson. I’m afraid I haven’t been fully honest with you”), but, as David proceeds to waste all loose ends (complete with hand grenades at a diner), it becomes evident that Barret has constructed the flimsiest of motivations for his twists, and hopes that keeping things obscure will be an end unto itself.


Ironically, since it’s the most homage-y it gets, the picture doesn’t quite right itself until the goofy horror trappings of the showdown, complete with ridiculously extravagant Halloween dance set, all endless passageways and dry ice. We know as soon as he is given it that Luke will end up putting the knife in David, but it can’t really be snooked at in a scene embracing conventions so fully (David even “dies” on graveyard scenery).


As for the movie’s take on returned veterans, it’s window dressing really. Barret does highlight the assumed worthiness of many “War on Terror” films, however. There’s a crafty scene where David messes with the head of a stoner claiming he and his friends “support you guys” to which David responds with sudden intensity (“But you wouldn’t support us by enlisting”). Elsewhere, they even throw in the old “military intelligence” joke.


The cast are outstanding, although Reddick could run through his role in his sleep. Maika Monroe, a young Gwen Steffani, keeps pace with Stevens measure for measure. Meyer is also strong. His reaction to David’s instructions on how to deal with bullies (go round their house at night and burn it down with their families inside) is priceless. Orser and Kelley add nuance to slim roles (Kelley in particular during the opening scenes) while Tabatha Shaun makes an impression as Anna’s best friend.


I should probably give Wingard and Barret’s You’re Next a look, although horror isn’t really my bag. The Guest is a good movie made by smart guys, but they could do with wearing their influences on their sleeves a little less.





Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.