Adam Wingard is fast becoming one of the most distinctive voices in horror, taking familiar stories and exploding them with a stylistic gusto that many directors lack the skill or conviction to pull off. His latest film The Guest, appearing at this year’s London Frightfest this week, is admirable in many ways: the performances, particularly from lead Dan Stevens, are fantastic, its soundtrack is at times jaw-dropping, and its best moments carry a thrilling sense that anything could happen. Its flaws are plentiful, but it never fails completely, pulling the fun out of even its most disappointing missteps.
A pastiche of 80s action films and Vietnam horrors like Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Deathdream (1972), The Guest stars Stevens as an soldier who turns up at a small-town Texas family home claiming to be a friend of their son who died in Afghanistan. Polite but unreadable, the parents take him in and offer to help him find his post-army feet, but their other son and daughter quickly realise that something’s more than a little off with their visitor and respond with glee and unease respectively. In fact, the film’s entire tone aims to strike a balance between glee and unease – one moment you are thrilling to these sequences of benevolent violence before pulling you up short at the chilling scene that’s just around the corner.
Wingard throws all concepts of right and wrong out of the window, giving the film a wildness and unpredictability in its first half that produces a number of satisfying payoffs. Stevens has a lot to do with this too, turning on a dime from a warm, corn-fed big-brother figure to a cold steel-eyed killing machine and back again so we can never get a handle on him or his intentions. His guest is something of the polar opposite of Sharni Vinson’s character in Wingard’s previous film You’re Next – where she begins the film as a warm, bubbly everygirl but adopts the persona of a ruthless survivalist when the situation calls for it, his everyman act is the mask obscuring his adoptive family from his true nature.
It’s a shame, therefore, that Wingard doesn’t quite have the courage of his convictions to really explore the uneasy happiness that he creates for this family in the wake of their grief, or to have more than a couple of half-assed stabs at the clear satirical potential of having a war veteran as both the film’s hero and villain. As soon as he has successfully confronted his audience he backs away, diverting our attention to a subplot involving covered-up army experiments and turning the film into a run of the mill cat-and-mouse actioner, albeit a very stylish one. Even if it’s not as smart as it could have been, the final sequence set inside a barn decked out for the school Halloween ball, spooky maze and all, is still a lot of fun, and Wingard’s visual sophistication leads to plenty of eye-popping moments.
So The Guest doesn’t quite work, but only because we’re holding it to a higher standard than most horrors due to the obvious innate talent of its director. In both this and You’re Next he has taken the well-worn tropes of the genre and breathed new life into them, not so much by deconstructing them as by delivering them in his own voice and on his own terms. In an genre that’s been resting on its laurels for some time now this is something to celebrate. Wingard is a director who is unafraid to defy our expectations whilst simultaneously deriving his spirit from the conventions of his chosen genre, and I can’t wait to see what he pulls out of the bag next.