Since the year is drawing to an end, I thought I’d do a round of all the great movies we’ve had this year. Well, one that I felt has to be mentioned is also one of the relatively unknown ones this year. But that means all the more reason to write about it. This is a movie that deserves some praise, having created an action-packed thriller-horror so reminiscent of the 80s, and was absolutely fun to watch. Playing off a well synced tension filling and lifting, although the movie did lose momentum in quite a few places, it does not fail to entertain. The Guest is a movie that’s worth every moment, hinging its thrill on the excellent actor and the eerie Halloween-vibe, which it pulls off elegantly.
The story is set in a Texas household caught in the middle of Halloween, and also the mourning of the recent passing away of the eldest son, Caleb. From the very first scene we see Dan Stevens in the character of David, supposedly a close friend of Caleb in the army, the air is tensed, and we are absolutely hooked. The seeming Mr. Nice Guy, gaining the trust of the family, protector for the kid and alluring to the daughter, he seems to be a good-mannered chap, taught well in army discipline. That is, until you see his face jump between smiles and intense frowns. The Guest takes several notes out of oldie horror classics by the likes of John Carpenter, but presents it on a platter with intense, high-paced action and an enigmatic character you can’t take our eyes off. Though not marking milestones like many other films toward the end of the year, it revels in its winning mixture of mystery, creeps, action and horror bordering on the cheesy. It has undeniable re-watch value and having watched it again right now, it still manages to thrill. Director Adam Wingard brings that strange and unexpected quality which is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seats for the whole movie. And to top it all off, it brings style to the table like nothing else.
I remember once telling someone in retort to a snide comment at the genre, that to make a good horror flick you have to orchestrate sounds in the most accurate manner, to amount to unnerving tension on screen. Tension is very much the bedrock of fear, and when produced in the right manner of lulling the viewer into an unsafe corner, it is simply a treat. I think this movie understands and applies the sound-tension linkage in a delightful tone, which lets you know this is not a safe place to be from the start. The soundtrack seems to have a life of its own, and the abrupt shifts and grading intensities really add another layer to the plot as well. At certain points, the use of sound even seems worthy of the ‘pulp’ tag but which is emphasized in the makers’ awareness of this very fact. More noticeable in the beginning, and later on a seamless patch in the endearing quilt, is the change in tone and octaves as the camera shifts to the character of David, as compared to the other people in the house. This clever use of sound keeps the mystery of who this man is, tightened in our minds, to the point where every turn is simultaneously a surprise and adding to the questions already piling up.
There is a certain feel to this movie that I can’t quite place exactly, but it boasts of the looks of an intense television drama – for all the right reasons – while also adding that slight tremble to the screen that isn’t exactly found footage, making the drama all the more realistic in the viewer’s eye. As I said before, this is a film that knows exactly what it is, and lays out the parameters in the opening scenes itself. There are an awful number of close-up shots of the enigmatic psychopath himself, and the accompanying, almost unnoticeable zooming in and sharp sounds sprawling the background hits hard every time. It starts off by telling us blunt that there is something not quite right with this smiling, friendly stranger, and keeps reaffirming our faith in that belief. The camera also seems to make several sweeping shots and smooth transitions from character to character, that while exploring the tensed relationship between characters, also presents the drama to be enfolding around David, being at the very centre of it all. It is an extremely dangerous image to see the tense smolder widen into a smile, proving once again that a smile is possibly the disturbing expression for the human face.
Though remaining serious for the most of the first half, the movie takes a more unexpected turn than any other till then, by expanding its frontiers, and engaging the audience in a most entertaining finish, filled with humour, extravagant moments and settings, that at the same do not take away from the rest of the movie. There were indeed some scenes and shifts of tone that seemed not unnecessary but catering to a more conventional theme, particularly the tryst with the military and the part about the secret government experiment. This did take away from the movie a bit, especially in unnecessarily serious conversations between the military officers, but the tone was soon revived by the return to the spooky town of premise. At the time, I think I might have let out a groan or two, as I was hoping for a more haunting and mysterious origin for our dangerous stranger. But seeing where it all ended up, I can see why the shift had to be so. Reminding us all of classic movie moments of a seemingly helpless (and almost surely female) prey being hunted by the psycho, the movie does a brilliant job of having fun in a most dangerous and chilling way. There’s no other way to put it, this movie just has a certain vibe that gives it a way about things. Effortlessly seeping in action into a very interesting premise, this one has its moments of panic and images of danger.
What started off as many indie horror films start off, with a premise that’s fit for any short story, transcends itself into a genre-bending, fun-packed thriller. But such a disarming atmosphere was always on the horizon, as the most enigmatic David thrives in his aura of mystery and an unknown past. And the element that keeps us glued onto every waking second of the plot is the laudable performance by Dan Stevens, who is imposing and startling in every frame. Those stern cold eyes, coupled with the mouth shifting between the unnerving smile and the intense killer straight, being only shown to us, makes us even more frightened for the sake of the family. A shadow of danger lurks around every corner, as literally in the ending sequences in the maze, and refuses to let go no matter how hard you try to shake it off. David here also reminded me a bit of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, with that same rapid flux of emotion, alternating between the maniacally gleeful and the stern, haunting stare. This is a movie that thoroughly enjoys itself, and doesn’t forget to let its audience in on the same fun. The movie takes a turn somewhat halfway through, which may turn out to be a negative for some. While it did feel like taking away from the direction it had come this far, once you get on board with it, it is insane amounts of fun. If you’ve seen the episode Epidemiology of the show Community, I think you’ll understand what I’m getting at. It takes a hearty laugh at the killer vs prey theme that roared in the 80s, while indulging in the same. There are various elements inserted throughout the length of it that create a world of perpetual Halloween, that culminate and peak at those near-ending scenes within the picturesque maze that I would pay top dollar to enter. There was an unbelievable allusion to 80s horror in the climax of the movie, which should have seemed out of place, but yet didn’t. Similar to Friday the Thirteenth, this tale also ends the characters in a comfort zone, only to realize the horror isn’t really over. I have to be honest in saying that the final arc of the movie did feel very different from the rest of it, sometimes over-the-top and all over the place.
It wouldn’t hurt most directors today to take a look at the action employed in this movie that is majorly intent on terror. There is a certain scene, the one at the bar where David leads the younger son Luke into, that was amazing to watch, as each punch and beating was directed with a certain intensity that almost make us feel the pain. The action is done near perfectly, with brilliant spanning shots that make for some high thrills. Even during the action sequences, David is still seen to be inflicting a disturbance in the very air around him. The camera was put to good use, with minimal shaky-cam and a large number of carefully placed zoom-ins that only increase the impact of the action.
After all of those thoughts, what is my verdict, you ask? The Guest will certainly not fail to impress or surprise you with its startling turns, while at the same playing on familiar ground of a small town where people start dying with the coming of a stranger. There are many elements in this movie that I absolutely adore, from the Jack-o-Lantern season forming the atmosphere, the beautifully chilling music that accompanies it, and the familiar, cheesy premise. But all these, while may read to be nostalgic, is actually some of the most fresh work out there. A stranger turns up at your doorstep, claiming to a friend. He gains the trust of the family. The children start noticing weird and unusual occurrences all around. There is definitely something not so right with the guest. Not strange tides at all, but when orchestrated in a style befitting the time, and an artistic quality that lends itself to both the tension and the fun, this makes for a very gripping and fantastic tale. Although there are dollops of potential cheese, it does not present itself in that shade, and when the overall satisfaction overpowers the minor defects, that’s a winner right there. A perfect blend of genres, changing tones from every second to the next, The Guest is truly special and deserves high appreciation. It did the unthinkable of packing fun into a disturbing package that’s stylistic and delicious, all in all. It is a lot of things, but more than anything, an insanely fun watch.