Shadow of a Hunk: "The Guest" a violent, darkly playful '80s-flavored blast

The Guest (2014)
99 min., rated R.

For a "…From Hell" thriller of this time but steeped in 1980s reverence, "The Guest" is a skillful, efficient, invariably fun piece of work. One could call it a throwback of "'The Terminator' meets 'Halloween' meets 'The Stepfather'" with its own personality; even the generic-sounding title seems intentional like a retro homage. Filmmaker Adam Wingard and writing partner Simon Barrett seem to share a single brain with their follow-up project to 2013's "You're Next," an inspired dysfunctional family/home-invasion/slasher thriller, and slap their audiences' expectations in the face once again. Here, they lace good-time thrills and consciously playful humor with a fresh, muscular vision and establish a specific tone that's self-aware without being obvious. Though such a quote gets thrown around a lot, "The Guest" is dark, violent fun that is bound to become a cult classic.

Dan Stevens is a force to be reckoned with as David, a discharged soldier who served in the Middle East. Just as Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) is having a moment of mourning to herself, David knocks on the front door of her secluded New Mexico home, claiming to be buddies with her eldest son, Caleb, before he was killed in combat. With that connection and his ingratiating exterior, David is invited into the Petersons' home for a couple of days. Laura's drinking-after-work husband Spencer (Leland Orser) is a little wary at first, worried if David is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but soon they're just a couple of guys bonding over brewskies. To their 20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe), who's saving up money for college by waitressing at a diner, David amuses her with his "Yes, ma'am/Thank you, ma'am" 'ol boy manners, and she swoons when he exits the bathroom with nothing but a towel (accompanied by a puff of shower steam). As for the youngest son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), who's experiencing bullying at school by a bunch of jocks, David wastes no time setting them straight. Beyond David's robotically polite, All-American facade that of a savior for the Peterson family, though, he might just be a trained killing machine with ice in his veins. What are you going to do?

With Wingard directing the hell out of this with slick, ruthless precision, "The Guest" is so no-frills and streamlined that it doesn't even bother with credits after the loud entrance of the title card, illustrated in a John Carpenter-esque font and cued to a sinister score. Set days before Halloween, the film manages to bleed fall foliage and the festive spirit of the holiday through its wall-to-wall decorations of carved pumpkins and fake cobwebs, neon colors and autumnal atmosphere even in a small, quaint southwestern town. Aiding the cause is Robby Baumgartner's stylish, methodical cinematography, which wears its influential heart on its sleeve through the framing of shots. Steve Moore's crafty, propulsive score of '80s-flavored goth electronica and synth beats also owes a debt to Carpenter with selections by Love and Rockets, Survive, and Clan of Xymox that recall 2011's "Drive" (which is always a good thing). Such a soundtrack is essential that one almost cannot think of the film existing with a modern music score; it just gives it a cool, weird, hypnotic vibe.

The centerpiece atop the cake is the lead's badass, star-making performance. The dashing Dan Stevens (TV's "Downton Abbey") is so fiercely effective as David. Upfront, he's a magnetic charmer who can seduce with his cold, piercingly blue eyes and sly grin, but he has such an effortlessly confident and mysterious presence, too. From charismatic to menacingly rattling, the actor can always make a seamless switch, or maintain both tones at the same time, and ultimately makes an unstoppable killer interesting again. With his chiseled handsomeness, efficiency and cheeky humor, one can't imagine anyone else besides Stevens in the part. The casting of the Peterson family is also ideal. As the parents, Sheila Kelley is affectingly sad-eyed as grieving mother Laura, while Leland Orser is hilariously jittery as father Spencer who likes sharing a beer with David, as well as the stress of not making enough money, until his regional manager is mysteriously killed. Maika Monroe is eye-catching and sweetly edgy as daughter Anna, who sports a retro waitress uniform. She is thankfully handled as a proactive heroine; Anna is no dummy, quickly realizing that the all-too-charming and very mysterious David is the common denominator when her friend is killed and her boyfriend gets charged for the murder. Brendan Meyer is also identifiable as son Luke, who sees David as an avenging angel, a switchblade-wielding role model, and a reminder of his older brother.

For much of its lean 99 minutes, "The Guest" is a slow burn before it reveals its hand and turns into a knowing, brazenly over-the-top actioner that's all tonally by design. Its shift isn't unlike "The Cabin in the Woods," transitioning from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford's characters at a corporate work facility to five college kids getting ready to go to the cabin, and like that 2012 piece of genre perfection, it still feels like the same movie. When the screenplay takes away the mystique of who David is and what he wants (which is pretty clear) and a military leader (Lance Reddick) enters, the film quickly explains itself without dumping on too much exposition. A key bar sequence, where David takes out Luke's school bullies who are drinking underage, is entertaining as hell in its bone-crunching brutality and attention to taut editing. Finally, there's a haunted-house maze at the school entrance of the Halloween Dance, which is amusingly convenient for a tense funhouse-like climax that does the opposite of tapering off. Without ever trying to be anything more than it is, "The Guest" is a blast of an adult crowd-pleaser that blows the doors off of idiotic, junky, self-serious studio thrillers. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar—or a body-count thriller is just a body-count thriller—but Hitchcock might have approved of this indelible slice of cake.

Grade: A -