After terrorizing a family reunion in “You’re Next,” director Adam Wingard and scenarist Simon Barrett let a different brand of uninvited company wreak havoc with another nuclear clan in “The Guest.” Indeed, an entire fictive New Mexico town here won’t soon recover from the mayhem inflicted by a classic mysterious-stranger-with-hidden-agenda played by Dan Stevens. A willfully over-the-top, giddily violent exercise landing between slasher horror and ’70s crazy-Vietnam-vet-returns action-thrillers, the pic is a real kick for genre fans, even if its last lap can’t quite cap the preceding outrages. Prospects are good for niche theatrical, better for download sales.
There’s a general atmosphere of tension and unhappiness in the Peterson household, no doubt exacerbated by the recent death of the family’s eldest son Caleb in Iraq. Mom (Sheila Kelley) is a grieving basketcase; Dad (Leland Orser) drinks to cope with job stress; withdrawn teen Luke (Brendan Meyer) is bullied by jocks at school; his older sis, Anna (Maika Monroe), is fed up with them all. Turning up one day out of the blue is David (Stevens), who introduces himself as Caleb’s fellow soldier and best friend, tasked with delivering his parting words to each family member.
David makes a deferential aw-shucks impression at first, though no one but Mom is especially pleased by his arrival. Nevertheless, he manages to ingratiate himself as he prolongs his stay, sussing out individual vulnerabilities and sometimes playing a very rough kind of guardian angel. (Luke’s tormentors get their arses thoroughly whupped in one startling setpiece.)
Yet he also seems a bit sinister, especially from the viewer’s p.o.v. When suspicious Anna calls the Army to verify his claimed identity, she’s informed that soldier actually died under unnatural circumstances just two weeks earlier. She also unknowingly triggers a major covert military intervention led by special-forces officer Carver (Lance Reddick). Unfortunately, that will prove far too little, too late to stop “David” from exploding like a nail bomb all over this sleepy burg.
Played in a key of macabre black comedy that’s deadpan save whenever all hell breaks loose, “The Guest” is such nasty fun you might not realize until afterward that David’s real reasons for arriving are never quite clarified. You may notice immediately, however, that the climax (set in an elaborate haunted house designed for a school Halloween dance) feels a bit ordinary and overly self-conscious as a horror homage, given the punchier material that precedes it. And the fadeout “gotcha!” is neither very surprising nor satisfying.
That slight letdown aside, “The Guest” is blood-soaked action trash of a high grade, on a low budget that it embraces — various stylistic choices (notably a soundtrack full of original and vintage synthesizer cheese) very much underlines the pic’s 1970s grindhouse and ’80s direct-to-VHS lineage.
“Downton Abbey’s” Stevens knocks a showy, 100% ‘Murrican role out of the park. There’s never any doubt that his David is one bat-crazy lethal weapon, as well as one sexy MF. (He convincingly shuts down Anna’s hostility, albeit briefly, by simply stepping half-naked from the shower.) Other performances as familiar character types are also fine-tuned; the production package is Wingard’s slickest yet.