The Peterson family — father, mother, early 20s daughter, highschool age son — are in mourning. Recently, Caleb, their oldest son and army soldier was killed in the Middle East.
Enter David. The Guest. David shows up at the Peterson’s rural abode, claiming to be a squadmate and great friend of Caleb. We, the audience, know something is off with David, not simply because the movie is titled ‘The Guest’, and Mrs. Peterson senses this at first at well. But David backs up his story by pointing himself out in a picture of Caleb the Petersons had amongst their mourning shrine before he even got there. He ingratiates himself further by being the missing good son/brother — he helps the highschooler stand up to bullies, assists the daughter with boyfriend problems, is a sounding board for the dad’s work woes, a warm son-like presence for mom.
This is a movie of tension, building. Watch David chop food in the kitchen with a large knife and wave it around while he’s talking in his earnest, affable manner. There’s a constant juxtaposition between blue eyed, ultra friendly David, that guy from Downton Abbey, and the violence we’re sure he’s capable of even before we see it. Indeed, the tension is dramatically more engaging and frightening than the violence itself when it does arrive.
While ostensibly a horror movie, The Guest isn’t all that scary or share many commonalities with modern horror. It’s more of a homage to 80s thriller/horror. It’s kind of goofy, kind of campy, there’s purposeful overacting and secret military plots. The type of movie that somehow sets its final set piece amidst a Halloween maze. Dan Stevens keeps David just believable enough to not devolve fully into silliness.
The mystery of David is never fully explained. The film uses some sci fi handwaving to explain portions of it. But that feels more like a crutch to explain otherwise inexplicable violence than an organic part of the film. I read later that the director had more ‘explainer’ scenes in the initial cuts but removed them because audience’s found them boring. But the end result feels too middle-ground for me — I would prefer a full explanation or none at all. If you read into the details the film drops, there’s definitely a fun sci-fi twists lurking below the surface, but without a reveal, it loses much of its appeal. I realize how fickle I am when I just celebrated a movie for giving no full explanation two days ago and then get annoyed this one didn’t have one. But they’re completely different styles of narrative!
My final thoughts coming away from the movie was that it was a great ride that I really enjoyed while it was happening, but kind of unsatisfying in the end. You could almost chart my tension/engagement as a jagged, rising line that flatlines once the movie ends. Something about this style of horror, even when very well realized like this movie is, just does not stick with me like other, scarier subgenres.