Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Terminator In the Living Room: "The Guest"


This is a first for Schloss Orlok. The Guest is without question the most recent film I've ever covered here (it was released last year), which might alienate the fanbase (are you out there? I know you are). Fear not, The Guest, which juggles three genres--horror, thriller, and sci-fi--is in-keeping with Schloss Orlok's aesthetic. This thoroughly modern throwback flick makes ultraviolence arty, plus its complicated moral center is reminiscent of Fritz Lang's best films, where righteous audience members are subjected to constant challenges to their character allegiances. Basically, The Guest posits an almost unanswerable question: who is the real bad guy?

The horror credentials for this film begin with director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. If you don't know these names yet, it would be a good idea if you learned them. These two, who collaborated in 2011 in order to make the excellent You're Next, which reverses the home invasion narrative by making the people inside the house more dangerous than the masked killers outside, have the makings of a powerful duo in the indie horror scene. As of this writing, Wingard is slated to direct a live-action remake of Death Note, the beloved Japanese manga about a sociopathic young man who finds a death god's notebook and uses it as a way to cleanse the earth of the socially undesirable. Who knows if Barrett will be involved. Personally speaking, I prefer the Wingard-Barrett tandem when they tackle American horror. After all, The Guest and You're Next are helping to reshape popular horror by commingling Carpenter and Craven sensibilities with contemporary concerns and realistic dialogue. Trust me, as much as some of you might not like it, this is needed in an age when the dividing line is between big-budget predictability and overly politicized student films masquerading as nano-budget heirs to '70s slashers. But I digress...


The plot of The Guest is wonderfully simple. A handsome and charming stranger named David Collins (played by Dan Stevens) shows up unannounced on the Peterson family's doorstep. Collins, who claims to have been the deceased Caleb Peterson's friend while the two served together in the U.S. Army Special Forces, blushes and smiles his way into the separate hearts of the family. The mom Laura (played by Sheila Kelley) is the first to be wooed, but given her grief, this is to be expected. The next to fall under David's spell is the smart, but bullied son Luke (played by Brendan Mayer), who remains loyal to David pretty much until the grim, bitter end. Spencer (played by Leland Orser), the dad, is initially skeptical, but comes around after a night of drinking. The only holdout is daughter Anna (played by Maika Monroe), a chilly, somewhat aloof 20-year-old who never seems to fully cotton to David. 

As things progress, David's promise becomes terrifyingly literal. Before Caleb's passing, David swore to look after the Peterson family if Caleb ever died. Now that it's his time to fulfill his duty, David helps Luke to fight back against his high school oppressors, helps Anna to overcome her deadbeat, drug dealer boyfriend (played by Chase Williamson), and helps Spencer to move up in his company. Suffice it to say that David doesn't do this with positive reinforcement. Simply put, David is a killer and master manipulator who outsmarts and out-duels every other authority figure in The Guest


While David does work like a human version of the mummified trinket in W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," he's also a living condemnation of the collusion between big business and American foreign policy. You see, David is an experiment gone wrong. We find out very late in the movie from Major Richard Carver (played by Lance Reddick) that David Collins (or the unnamed soldier who is now calling himself David Collins) was a model soldier who went bad after being subjected to a neurological experiment by the sinister KPG Corporation. To make matters worse, David has been programmed to clean up all loose ends if he ever feels that his cover has been blown. This was designed to keep KPG's activities from getting out to the public, but in reality it turns David into a reluctant mass murderer whenever he feels that someone is getting too close to the truth. Guess what? Someone gets too close to the truth in The Guest

Although thematically an action movie with a vaguely sci-fi plot, The Guest feels like a horror film. Besides the fact that the film takes place in a lonely small town in New Mexico during Halloween, and besides the fact that the final shootout erupts in a high school gym complete with a fog machine, various Halloween decorations, and a jump-worthy haunted house maze, The Guest looks and sounds like something haunting. Cinematographer Robby Baumgartner washes the film in dark colors and muted hues, while the music, which is mostly dark, pulsating electropunk from the '80s, makes almost every scene unsettling. In this way, The Guest is a lot like It Follows, a film that could have easily been directed by Wingard. 

But without question, the biggest reason for terror in The Guest is Stevens's tremendous performance. Steven's David Collins is the perfect houseguest and ideal masculine man when he wants to be. But when he's alone, Stevens uses silence and a thousand yard stare to cultivate a sense of dread and doom around David's aura. In Stevens's hands, David Collins is Ryan Gosling's unnamed driver in 2011's Drive (a film that clearly influenced The Guest) with a moral compass forced into the opposite direction. 


As preposterous as it might be to say, The Guest isn't the shape of things to come, it's the shape of things as they are. Quality horror and thriller movies are looking to the past for their flavor, while maintaing an eye on the present for their subject matter. As far as I'm concerned, this is a winning combination. 

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