Dan Stevens in “The Guest.” | Picturehouse
Just when I had “The Guest” pegged as an entertainingly predictable thriller-horror flick — the kind of movie where you instantly know THAT guy’s gonna get it and you’ll cheer his demise — it goes off the rails and goes completely nuts, and I mean that in a good way.
What we have here is a monster movie without anyone wearing a hockey mask or killing teenagers in their sleep, yet there’s no doubt “The Guest” is something of an homage to the schlock classic horror films of a generation ago. It also reminded me a little of a couple of Clint Eastwood “stranger rides into town” movies such as “Pale Rider.”
I know. It’s definitely a what-the-heck special.
Even the casting of Dan Stevens, the actor best known for playing the noble Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” is pretty great. After several seasons of portraying the perfect British gentleman, whose most demonstrative displays of emotion consisted of striding with purpose out of perfectly appointed rooms or keeping his chin up in the face of yet another tragedy, it must have been enormous good fun for Stevens to ham it up as the mysterious charmer David, a recently discharged American war hero who shows up without advance warning on the doorstep of the Peterson family while they’re still in mourning their son Caleb, who was killed in action overseas.
As David explains to Caleb’s mother (Sheila Kelley), he and Caleb were stationed together and had become quite close, and Caleb’s dying wish was for David to tell his family how much he loved them. That anecdote — and the photo on the mantel showing David with Caleb and the rest of their team — is enough for the family to open their home to David.
Mom insists David stay in Caleb’s untouched bedroom;Dad overcomes his initial resistance over the course of one beer-drinking session; Caleb’s little brother Luke (Brendan Meyer) almost instantly idolizes David, and even Caleb’s suspicious (and of course smoking hot) sister Anna (Maika Monroe) develops a crush on David. Why, she even makes him a mix CD. David is the coolest!
And what’s not to dig about this guy? He’s home after sustaining injuries while serving his country. He’s got the chiseled good lucks and the toned abs of a guy with a lifetime membership to the Young Brad Pitt Fitness Center. He’s a good listener when Mom and Dad share their woes, he’s got a plan to take care of the bullies tormenting Luke at school — and wait until you see him in action at a party thrown by one of Anna’s friends. You half-expect the Petersons to take down the shrine to Caleb and vote David into the family on a permanent basis.
As time goes on, David rescues a litter of puppies from a burning building, gets a job as a high school counselor, runs for city council and eventually marries Anna. They name their firstborn after Caleb.
Let’s just say the bullets start flying and the body count piles up, as “The Guest” plays like “The Terminator” meets “Halloween” meets a whole lot of other stuff. Credit goes to Simon Barrett’s genre-tribute script, which contains plenty of wickedly funny moments and some real flights of insanity, including a black-ops subplot, and of course to the direction of Adam Wingard (“V/H/S”), who has the confidence to build the story at a steady pace, giving us the chance to actually get to know these characters before they’re plunged into bloody madness. (Some scenes, such as when David questions Anna’s waitress friend in a diner, practically announce the arrival of a new cult favorite.)
Young Maika Monroe is terrific as the smart and tough Anna, who endures unspeakable terrors but refuses to give up and die. Stevens is a hoot, and I mean that in a good way. Of course we believe him as a leading man who can literally charm the shirt and pants off a woman the night he meets her, and he’s a badass in the action scenes — but he’s also very funny because he’s never trying to be funny. To wit, a scene when David negotiates a deal with the school principal after young Luke gets into trouble, leaving the administrator and Luke’s mother speechless. Not since Uncle Buck triumphantly stomped out of school to the tune of “Wild Thing” have we seen such a display.
That I look up and realize I’ve referenced “Uncle Buck,” “Pale Rider,” “The Terminator” and “A Nightmare On Elm Street” in the same review tells you this is something wonderfully weird and warped.
Picturehouse presents a film directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett. Running time: 99 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality).