Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett brought horror film ecstasy to fans last year with You're Next, a mordant, bloody paean to slasher films that was as clever in its plotting and characterization as it was terrifying.
They team up again for one of the fall's best thrillers, The Guest, a postmodern mash-up of '70s and '80s horror filled with references to John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, Wes Craven, and other horror greats, and enlivened by a terrific soundtrack featuring Love and Rockets, Sisters of Mercy, Clan of Xymox, and Survive.
Dan Stevens (The Fifth Estate, Hilde), who is blessed with a classic all-American boy-next-door look, uses his visage to maximum effect as David, a creepy, freaky, secretive, dangerous, murderous - yet stunningly polite and lovable - special forces soldier who insinuates himself into the Smalltown USA family of a fallen comrade.
David shows up at the Peterson house at the perfect time: The family has been disintegrating since news came that the oldest son, Caleb, died in Afghanistan.
Dad Spencer (Leland Orser) has become obsessed with office politics, spending every evening analyzing in excruciating detail his every conversation with his boss; mom Laura (Sheila Kelley) has joined the ranks of the living dead, shuffling about the house in a depressive daze. The dysfunction has its claws deep in Caleb's sister. Anne (Maika Monroe) resorts to booze and drugs to deal with the pain, while young high schooler Luke (Brendan Meyer) is viciously bullied for being shy.
You can tell from the first frame that something is fundamentally wrong with David. You just can't put your finger on it.
When he shows up at the Petersons', it seems obvious he's there to slice and dice 'em up. He doesn't.
Wingard and Barrett aren't about to make things that simple, and they throw us a series of delicious curveballs.
Impossibly helpful, loving, and faithful, David develops intimate emotional bonds with each of his hosts. He dispenses helpful advice to Pa Peterson, shows Anne a thing or two about true love, and teaches Luke how to fight back against his bullies. For Ma Peterson, he's a reincarnation of Caleb, and his presence eases her unbearable pain.
It feels so creepy, the way he operates, but we can't help becoming emotionally invested in David. Which makes things all the more wondrously horrific when he does break, waging a one-man war across town.
The filmmakers don't bother hammering home a backstory or explaining why David is crazy. They just throw us in the deep end and dazzle us with a series of violent encounters that ends with a deadly chase in a surreal fun house maze of mirrors.
The Guest borrows from other genre pictures with such intelligence and clarity of purpose, it manages to feel fresh, exciting. That's a rare quality during a Halloween horror-film season packed with derivative trash.