“The Guest” isn’t the first thriller in which a mysterious stranger enters the home of an ordinary family and terrorizes its denizens. But this medley of retro horror, action thrills and black comedy directed by Adam Wingard undeniably pleases as a deranged dose of fun and mayhem.
Wingard operates within familiar genre structures but delivers the recipe with bite and verve. Working again with screenwriter Simon Barrett, with whom he collaborated on “You’re Next,” he’s made another home-invasion and slasher story, which he infuses this time with war-trauma and sci-fi elements.
The setting is New Mexico. The tone combines the deadpan and the unhinged. The ever-influential John Carpenter is in the details of this hybrid, which transpires around, naturally, Halloween.
Stevens, from “Downton Abbey,” plays a back-from-overseas U.S. solider who, calling himself David (Dan Stevens), appears at the house of a grieving family. While his preternaturally blue eyes and creepy smile clearly spell uh-oh, Laura (Sheila Kelley) and Spencer (Leland Orser) Peterson warm to David when he says he knew their son Caleb, who died in action.
The couple invites David to stay at their home, and, before long, he is winning the trust of each family member. He comforts Laura, becomes Spencer’s drinking buddy, and harshly deals with the bullies tormenting high-schooler Luke (Brendan Meyer).
Twenty-year-old Anna (Maika Monroe), meanwhile, swoons when David steps out of the shower. But when bodies start amassing, she gets suspicious. From the army, Anna learns that David isn’t whom he clams to be. A U.S. military agent (Lance Reddick) arrives to capture David. Elements of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Lady From Shanghai” come into play as a violent pursuit ensues. A Halloween maze provides the setting for a bloody showdown.
As with most genre pictures, there isn’t much new here. Chase sequences are standard and the climactic scenes, while visually impressive, are less inspired than what has preceded them. David remains frustratingly opaque. Filmmakers hint that PTSD may have triggered his madness, but they don’t develop the notion.
Nonetheless, this 1980s-style movie has wickedly pleasing aplomb. As fantasy escapism, it’s brave, colorful and entertaining for audiences who can handle substantial carnage.
It also stands out among films of its ilk for the thought it gives to how its troubled characters connect – particularly in depicting how emotional predators abuse vulnerable people damaged by tragedy.
A John Carpenter-like score adds to the mood.
Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick
Written by Simon Barrett
Directed by Adam Wingard
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes