2016.88: The Guest (FIlmFour HD)
Dan Stevens’ transformation from Downton Abbey’s noble commoner Matthew Crawley to maniac American killer David Collins is something of a disorientating revelation. To be honest the disorientation was partly down to me not knowing what to expect from what I thought would be a serious thriller. I admit I must be some sort of idiot- I hadn’t seen any hint of it being a dark comedy, coming into the film ‘blind’. From the start there was something distinctly ‘off’ by the tone of the film and its performances and it took a good half-hour for me to realise what was actually going on: I was actually missing the joke. The Guest isn’t the serious thriller I expected it to be- instead it is a dark comic homage to slasher genre films of the 1980s, films like Halloween and Friday the 13th with plenty of First Blood thrown into the mix.
Grieving family the Petersons are visited by all-American, gentle-spoken David Collins, freshly discharged from the Army and visiting the family to give them parting messages from their deceased son who he had served with in combat.Invited to stay with them for a few days he becomes part of the family- for grieving mother Laura, he’s almost a surrogate son, helping out with chores etc, but it eventually begins to unfold that he’s helping out in other, less wholesome ways. The workplace rival of husband Spencer is suddenly found dead by police, easing the path of Spencer’s promotion. Youngster Luke who is bullied at school has his bullies taken care of and given some practical advice re:standing up for himself (and once he does so, his ensuing school suspension is quickly rescinded once Collins visits the Principal). The dead-end junkie holding back daughter Anna from getting on with her life suddenly winds up in jail on a murder charge.
As the number of deaths and violent events ramp up in the otherwise quiet and unremarkable town, it becomes clear that the kindly Collins is more than he appears. He’s actually a mix of Rambo/Michael Myers, a cold killer trained by the military as some kind of psychopathic weapon, a time-bomb on the run from the authorities just waiting to go off. When he finally does go totally berserk, no-one is safe, not even the Petersons, and even the military task-force sent in to stop him might not be enough.
Had this film been made in 1986, it would have been huge. It feels like it was made to be played/watched on a VHS tape. Part of this is the cinematography and a reliance on 1980s-sounding music on the soundtrack (which sounds also very much in the style of the soundtrack of Drive). Its smart and witty and dark and funny, and all its nods to First Blood and Halloween and The Terminator are all part of the delicious fun. The only problem is that it also feels like a film out of its time. It isn’t completely convincing, but maybe that’s just because it feels so less than a film of 2014 and more one from 1986.
No small part of the success of the film though is the performance of Dan Stevens, which is frankly astonishing. He looks and sounds like an homegrown, all-American hero, but behind his charm there is evidently something ‘off’ about him. There are early moments when his smile is revealed to be a mask, with a cold Terminator-like expression underneath it. On initial viewing, they felt awkward and forced but in hindsight, its all part of that 1980’s video-nasty conceit that runs slyly through the film. Its a trickier, and more impressive, performance than it initially looks and deserves some high praise- the film wouldn’t work as well as it does without Stevens in the role and its really light-years from Downton Abbey. I dread to think what the old dears giving this film a rental on the strength of Stevens name on the credits would think of it.
This film really is the kind of film that thoroughly deserves the term ‘cult’ and I’m sure will gather quite a following over the years and re-viewings. Indeed, my own partial misgivings are likely down to not getting the film I originally expected, so will likely be changed when I re-watch it knowing what it really is.
I wonder if a sequel is in the works. There deserves to be, if only to reinforce the conceit of all those serial-killer franchises that seemed to run forever.