'The Guest' Is A Fun '80s Throwback With Sci-Fi And Stalker Sprinkles On Top [Movie Review]

Update from editor Peter Sciretta: The following review was published by Germain Lussier on January 19th 2014 from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The movie is out in theaters this week:

The films by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett always have one thing in common. They are obviously influenced by an intense passion for movies, but are not overtly obvious about referencing those movies. In that sense, The Guest might feel like something you've seen before. It's got the basic feel of a stalker film from the late '80s or early '90s, but filtered through the action of Quentin Tarantino, the music of John Carpenter, the ideas of James Cameron and almost too many others to mention. There's action, sci-fi, horror, comedy... you name it, this movie has it. The result is a fresh, fun film that crescendos from title to credits with suspense, laughs and violence.

Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens plays David, a mysterious ex-soldier who shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family, explaining that he served with their dead son. The family, still grieving the loss of their son, could use a friend, and is gracious to their guest. Things seem okay for a while. Slowly, however, clues begin to suggest that David might not be all he purports to be.

Barrett's script and Wingard's editing are incredibly tight. The movie moves along at a brisk pace. While the film doesn't really kick into action mode for 30 minutes, we remain interested thanks to David's sheer unpredictability, and some silly yet menacing sound effects. The score, by Steve Moore (of the band Zombi), also drives the movie along with style. It's pure, catchy synthesizer heaven. A throwback to the '70s and '80s but with the feeling of Drive and Grand Theft Auto from the equipment used by John Carpenter. It tells the audience while what we are seeing might seem dramatic, it's supposed to be fun.

And it is fun. Tense, high-energy scenes at high schools, parties, and even a rock quarry make the audience wonder what could possibly happen next. As David's story is slowly revealed, everything turns up a notch and that methodical first third is balanced with a batshit crazy finale.

As David, Stevens does his best to break the shell of his iconic Downton Abbey character. He's cool, calm, and collected, and Wingard makes amazing use of his baby blue eyes and chiseled good looks. He's never purely scary or sweet, just right in the middle, on the brink of it all. For those unfamiliar with his work, it's a star-making performance. The same can be said for Maika Monroe, playing the Petersons' daughter, Anna. She's the audience surrogate in the film, and while the role could potentially have been played as bitchy, she's too clever and cute not to like.

The one place The Guest does stumble a bit is the delicate balance of campy and frightening. Wingard's direction and Moore's score give the audience a very good idea this isn't a serious movie, but Barrett writes David in such a fun way we instinctively get attached to him.  So when things take a major turn for the worse, wanton violence sucks the fun out of the movie for a while. It wins us back with an elaborate, hilarious climax but the escalation goes a little too far to keep it consistently playful.

Despite that minor stumble though, The Guest is just plain entertaining. It blends genres without calling attention to itself and is original in spite of feeling so familiar. I'm excited to see it again.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10