The Guest: SXSW 2014 Review
An old school Carpenter-like horror film that manages to apply what made eighties era horror great.
Published on March 17, 2014 | Filed under SXSW 2014
The Guest

The Guest has such a direct line to my cinematic pleasure centers that it’s almost unseemly that I should review it. We come across movies like that every so often, films so tailor made to our interests that it’s as though our cinematic desires were relayed to the filmmakers via tiny gnomes who burrowed into our skull. Why yes, I would heartily enjoy an old school John Carpenter-like horror film that manages to apply what made eighties era horror great to our era of filmmaking without embalming itself in fetishism the way most throwbacks do. If said film featured a strong character driven script, gorgeous cinematography, a sense of humor that doesn’t undercut its genuine air of menace and a fantastic soundtrack, that would also be ideal.

Before you think me too much a fish in a barrel for director Adam Wingard it should be noted that I pretty much loathed You’re Next, which spoiled a decent(ish) first hour with a severely stupid third act and took it’s most redeeming element whole cloth from “Incident On And Off A Mountain Road.” Furthermore I found his contributions to the V/H/S films to be vile and boring (in that order). If anything I walked into The Guest with a chip on my shoulder, but Wingard blew me away. It’s probably the single greatest improvement I’ve seen from a genre director since The House of 1000 Corpses begat The Devil’s Rejects.

The Guest follows a family, still desperately wounded by the death of their eldest child/sibling in Iraq. When David, a man claiming to have served in the same unit as their child, arrives to deliver their son’s final words he seems at first like just the thing to bring closure to the horrendous ordeal. Of course, this being a horror film, there are complications.

The first half of The Guest plays like a wicked parody of the, “stranger comes to a troubled family, solves everything,” films that still show up now and then. Of course David “solves” their problems by hospitalizing the teens bullying the family’s remaining son, framing the drug dealing boyfriend of the daughter for murder, and killing the man in the way of the father’s promotion. Imagine My Bodyguard scripted by and starring a sociopath. You might think I’m giving away too much but I’ve barely scratched the surface. One of the many things to like about The Guest is how gracefully it segues from dark comedy to horror.

The Guest

Stylistically The Guest is a throwback, but it is not an excercise in recreation ala House Of The Devil. Instead The Guest applies the techniques of 80’s horror to modern filmmaking. The Guest draws on the classic work of John Carpenter (lacking only a 2.35:1 aspect ratio but this is the nitpickiest of nitpicks) but it is not beholden to him. For one thing, Wingard is aware that his film is playing in a much larger tradition, drawing on sources like fellow returning vet as monster film, Deathdream and even a source of horror as seminal as “The Monkey’s Paw”, another story that features a monstrous surrogate son conjured up in part by a mother’s intense grief. What he draws from Carpenter is his careful framing, smooth, subtle blocking, intense soundscape and trademark rhythmic editing. Indeed The Guest is such a leap in visual sophistication over the quasi mumblecore styling of You’re Next that I can scarcely believe it’s the product of the same director. Masks and false faces litter the set decoration. The autumn color palette by cinematographer Robby Baumgartner is rich, ominous and beautiful as is the score by Steve Moore. It’s worth noting that The Guest also features some of the best used incidental music I’ve heard in a horror movie since the one-two punch of Joanna Newsome and Merle Haggard in The Strangers. The cast is in fine form, particularly Dan Stevens as David, whom the film hinges on, and who finds just the right note between “aw shucks” all American sincerity and scary intensity that makes it all work.

I’ll leave the finale of The Guest for you to discover, suffice it to say that Wingard seems to have learned his lesson from the nightmarishly prolonged exposition of You’re Next’s final third and leaves the exact details of David’s condition blessedly ambiguous. The finale of The Guest will ask you to believe that a Midwestern high school has budgeted something like 50,000 dollars for its Halloween dance, but slight lapse in logic aside The Guest’s ending is a sublime sustained pay off.

It’s going to be a good autumn horror fans.

Bryce's book, Son Of Danse Macabre is currently available for the Kindle.