Not all genre pastiches are created equal. Director Adam Wingard’s breakout movie, You’re Next, was a loving but uneven nod to the slasher genre. But his new film, The Guest — a similarly pitched tribute to ’80s horror thrillers like The Terminator and Halloween — is a smarter, more daring, and all-around more accomplished film than its predecessor.
The Guest openly acknowledges its ’80s influences, but its closest cousin is a far more unlikely movie: Mary Poppins. Like Mary, David flies in from nowhere to “enrich” the lives of a dysfunctional family, in this case the Petersons. He says he was a friend of the Petersons’ late son Caleb, who died while serving in the Army. It’s not long before David manages to bond with every member of Caleb’s surviving family: his grieving mother (Sheila Kelley), his booze-swilling father (Leland Orser), his tough sister (Maika Monroe), and his bullied younger brother (Brendan Meyer).
But while Mary Poppins’ lessons tended toward flying kites and spoons full of sugar, David’s lessons almost invariably end with murder. Ex-boyfriend won’t leave you alone? Slam his head into a wall. Annoying co-worker took your promotion? Kill him and make it look like suicide. Bullies bothering you? Fight back — and if that doesn’t work, kill their families and burn their houses down.
He never sprouts fangs or turns into a bat, but David is a kind of vampire. He doesn’t enter the Peterson house until he’s invited over the threshold, and his physical speed and strength border on the superhuman. It’s not long before he’s turned each member of the Peterson family into a kind of Renfield to his Dracula, as they play into his hands and fall deeper and deeper under his influence.
That’s a tricky balance for any actor to strike. And fortunately, The Guest found the perfect man for the job. This is a star-making turn for Dan Stevens, who wisely jumped off the sinking ship of Downton Abbey to expand his presence in Hollywood.
On paper, the mannered Brit is an unconventional choice for the role, which calls for a cross between the laconic charm of Justified’s Timothy Olyphant and the mannered intensity of Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe. But Stevens plays David to alternately hilarious and terrifying effect, flipping as the situation requires between good ol’ boy friendliness and chilling, merciless brutality. Wingard homes in on Stevens’ chiseled face and ice-blue eyes in a series of close-ups, precisely capturing David’s almost schizophrenic personality shifts.
The Guest works by infusing its blood-drenched narrative with loads of wit and style; when it isn’t suspenseful, it’s funny. When the movie starts piling on implausible twists in its third act — with a major assist from a wild-eyed Lance Reddick — it’s so much fun that you’ll probably be inclined to give it as much rope as it needs.