Saturday, October 25, 2014

"The Guest" Review - Proof Positive That A Smile And Good Manners Can Get You Further Than A Bloody Knife


Last year writer/director smashed on to the horror scene with the tantalizingly tense and twisty horror thriller You're Next. While watching that film one thing became readily apparent, we were seeing a new and exciting voice emerge on to the scene who wasn't afraid to flip the script and deliver something that was overly familiar yet completely unique at the same time. To put it bluntly, he made a modern day horror masterpiece.

A year later he has returned and is set to defy all expectations once again. Despite giving his films probably the most mundane and borderline unappealing titles of all time, Wingard is intent on reminding us of a bygone era of filmmaking where filmmakers like John Carpenter and Wes Craven approached their features with a no holds barred attitude. Wingard's latest film The Guest, the subject of this review, is not only a homage to the all encompassing slasher genre but in many ways improves upon it.  Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats: 
Projector Type: Digital 2D         
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 39 min
Studio: Picturehouse

Biases:  
Loves: John Carpenter films, the throwback synthesizer soundtrack
Likes: Films that don't flinch when it comes to violence and has a good sense of humor
Neutral:  Smart characters who make stupid decisions
Hates: Nothing
Possible franchise?: I wouldn't mind if that happened.

Is David the perfect guest or the Peterson family's worst nightmare?
As the Peterson family continues to come to grips with the loss of their eldest son Caleb who was killed in action overseas, they are visited by a mysterious man named David () who claims to be from Caleb's unit and his close friend. David explains to Caleb's emotionally distraught mother Laura () that it was Caleb's last wish before dying that David return home to Caleb's family and tell them his final thoughts were about them and how much he loved them. After learning that David has nowhere to stay, Laura feeling a connection to her dead son through David's sudden and unexpected arrival, invites him to stay with them (and in Caleb's old room to boot).

Despite not knowing anything about him besides a group photo with Caleb with him in it along with rest of their unit, the Peterson family quickly builds a bond with David and find their grief slowly lifting through his sheer presence in their once dreary household. The Peterson family consists of Laura, her alcoholic husband () and their two other kids, Luke () and his older sister Anna () who all receive help from David in some form or another.  However, as David begins integrating himself in their lives more and more they slowly begin to realize that perhaps David isn't exactly who he says he is. As bodies begin piling up around town and people start to go missing, the Peterson's start to suspect David is in town for more than just a friendly visit.

It doesn't take long before David becomes a part of the family.
Anyone who either grew up on the films of John Carpenter or became a fan of his work during the 70's and 80's will immediately draw comparisons to Wingard's new film, especially from Carpenter's filmography. It isn't a slight against Wingard or the film at all to call it out on its obvious influences (mostly Carpenter's 70's horror classic Halloween), it is a huge compliment. Setting out to make an homage to a specific style of filmmaking is one thing, but making good on the promise is an entire other subject. Just look at Robert Rodriguez's ode to Carpenter-esque filmmaking with the laughably outrageous Planet Terror where he copied the sound and look of those films but made the entire thing more of a spoof.

Wingard's The Guest has a slick soundtrack (almost entirely done with a synthesizer to help keep that 80's vibe) and some really great understated production values but treats the material as though it was vying for Best Picture of the year. The key here comes from not making the entire endeavor a huge cheesefest, which Rodriguez reveled in. There are plenty of winks and nods to the absurdity of both a character's actions and just on a purely visual level (the fog infested finale is a prime example), but it never takes you out of the moment. One such example is when we see David emerge from a freshly used shower shrouded by steam (a comical role reversal of the Kelly Lebrock scene in Weird Science), flexing his chest with nothing more than a towel wrapped around his chiseled abs where he encounters Anna who immediately swoons at the sight of him.

"Excuse me, which way is the beach?"
The entire scene just screams extreme cheese, but somehow Wingard is able to reign it all in and never go overboard. You want to laugh at the whole situation because it is so contrived and so bizarre, yet there is an honesty to the scene that feels in line with how Stevens lures us into that pretty boy gaze of his. You find yourself caught off guard by his obvious manipulative charms because he comes off as such a great guy who through his own special brand of friendliness just wants to help the Peterson family while taking care of his own business. The casting of Dan Stevens as David was a crucial part of making all of this work though.

He brings a charm that is just as intoxicating as it is disarming, but there is still a sort of quiet rage being held within that we see bubble to the surface from time to time that reminds us he is extremely dangerous. But there is a fine balance that Wingard strikes between playfully destructive and just downright brutal. A scene involving David and Luke who visit a local bar so that David can engage with some fellow classmates of Luke's who have been bullying him at school is a great example of this. Without going in too much detail, let's just say the scene is a perfect mixture of mischief and mayhem which the film keeps up until the bombastic finale that perhaps delves a little more into the mayhem than it should have, but still ends on a positive note.

The entire film is just soaked in a rich cinematic atmosphere.
I cannot forget to mention the visual style of the film which quite possibly garners the most similarities between The Guest and the films of someone like John Carpenter. From the opening credits font choice to the very subtle but brilliant cinematography, Wingard gives the film a distinct look that helps put the audience in a proper 80's mindset. Films just aren't lit and shot like this anymore, which is both sad and understandable considering the dreamlike feeling it provides, but that is part of why everything works so well from the outrageous events that take place during the finale to the ridiculous amount of good guy charm that David evokes, even when he is killing somone.

Either way you slice it, if you are looking for a fun throwback style slasher film or a tongue-in-cheek horror flick, The Guest delivers on both accounts. While there isn't much in the way of surprises aside from the reveal of David's true background (which is also a bit predictable if you are a fan of the genre), Wingard's reluctance to settle for cheap thrills and bland characterizations (something this genre is overly guilty of) and Dan Steven's charismatic turn as the diabolically likable evil that is David, there is no doubt that you will come away from the film without being entertained from beginning to end. Plus how can you not love a guy, no matter how many people he has killed, who gives a thumbs up and smile to the guy who just shot him?



FINAL THOUGHTS:

Armed with nothing more than a smile and some good looks, David becomes the epitome of evil and quite possibly the best/worst house guest of all time. Just about the biggest accolade I could ever give The Guest is that if you were to catch it on cable late one night knowing nothing of it or its stars, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a film made in the 80's, which is quite possibly the biggest compliment you can give a film such as this. See it if you are a fan of John Carpenter or classic slasher style thrillers from an era of filmmaking that sadly doesn't exist anymore.

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