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Film Club Classics

06th Jul 2024

This 10-year-old cult action thriller movie is still being discovered

Stephen Porzio

Streaming on Netflix now, the stylish flick’s deft blend of action, horror and thriller elements makes it a film anyone can enjoy.

Title – The Guest

Year – 2014

Plot – “A string of mysterious deaths leads a teenager (Maika Monroe) to become suspicious of a soldier (Dan Stevens) who showed up on her family’s doorstep and claimed to be a friend of her dead brother.”

Cast – Dir. Adam Wingard; Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick, Joel David Moore

Rotten Tomatoes / IMDB scores: 92% / 6.7

One of the most robust and consistently entertaining sub-genres of movie is the “blank from hell”.

I would categorise this as the type of thriller film where, generally, someone new enters the main character’s life and seems utterly perfect. Over the course of the story, however, the stranger gradually reveals a sinister agenda, with the story then culminating in a violent climactic showdown between the pair.

What’s great about these movies is that the best of them capitalise on audiences’ inherent fear of people they do not know, while also providing plenty of situations that spur viewers to ask: “What would I do in this situation?”

That is before tension builds and builds until audiences just can’t take it anymore, with that tension eventually spilling over into a hopefully shriek-inducing finale.

Some classic examples of this from the ’80s or ’90s include Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Internal Affairs, Pacific Heights, Single White Female, Bad Influence and Unlawful Entry. But its still a viable genre to this day, with other recent entries in the sub-genre including Irish director’s Neil Jordan’s 2018 flick Greta or last year’s more modern-day spin Influencer.

Another movie that we’d argue is a classic that fits this criteria is 2014’s The Guest. It stars Dan Stevens as David, a recently discharged US soldier who heads to New Mexico to visit the grieving family of one of his now deceased friends in army.

Appearing charming and polite, David tells the family he made a promise to his dead friend to visit and take care of the latter’s relatives.

The ex-soldier is welcomed by most of the clan, including the parents (Leland Orser and Sheila Kelley) and their teenage son (Brendan Meyer), who invite him to stay a few days in their home.

20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe), however, remains wary of David. The more time he spends in her home and the more he tries to “help” the family, it becomes clear that perhaps Anna is right to be suspicious.

The project reteamed writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, two figures associated with the US indie mumblecore filmmaking movement who had surprise mainstream success with their 2011 slasher You’re Next. With The Guest as their follow-up, it saw the pair somehow re-capturing lightning in a bottle, this time on a slightly bigger scale.

Because while the movie does follow all the tropes of the ‘blank from hell’ sub-genre – one of the most mainstream of sub-genres – there is a sense watching The Guest that, as it was made on such a low budget (only $5 million), that Barrett and Wingard had a lot of creative control.

And in interviews conducted around the time of the film’s release, the pair professed their love of ’80s cinema – stepfather from hell thriller The Stepfather was cited as a big influence – as well as music.

They also emphasised how their main goal was to make just a fun, entertaining movie.

On the latter point, Barrett told Collider:

“Critics conflate movies that aren’t entertaining with movies that have artistic merit. To me, that’s completely false. It’s actually much harder to tell an original story with characters you care about that has a beginning, middle and end than it is to make an alienating, experimental mood piece. I know because we’ve made both.

“The first thing I think about is who is going to be watching the movie and how we’re going to reward that experience. On top of that, if we want to do anything weird and subversive, we can as long as we adhere to the first rule of making the movie deliver what the audience wants.”

Wingard also added:

“I think modern warfare has already been covered in that kind of depressing: ‘war is futile and everyone comes back damaged’ way already. That’s kind of the theme of the post-Iraq films of the last decade. So there’s no reason for us to tell you anything you don’t already know about PTSD or anything like that… We all agree that we’re smarter than the people who love war and all that [laughs].

“At the end of the day, we’re genre filmmakers and enjoy making those movies. And when we’re coming at a PTSD film like this, we have to be honest to who we are as filmmakers.”

In keeping with this, The Guest features a pulsating soundtrack of electronic/goth ’80s style music, a scene where a military squad basically demolishes a house with machine gun fire and a finale that plays out at an elaborate Halloween haunted house.

If you asked Barrett and Wingard, the reasons for such striking choices – they would probably say “because it’s cool” and they would be damn right.

Also the fact that the movie was made so cheaply meant that they did not need to hire a cast of stars and could just employ the actors best suited for the characters they had created.

In keeping with this, they cast Dan Stevens, who in 2024 is renowned for being one of the few actors that boasts A-list looks and charm but is also equally great in supporting character actor parts.

At the time of The Guest though, he was coming off of two seasons on Downton Abbey and was probably eager to prove he could lead more than just British period pieces.

And he is absolutely phenomenal in The Guest, managing to be charming and handsome enough that viewers understand why a family would let such a stranger into their home while also always suggesting – through his intense eyes and slightly robotic movements – that there is more to his “friend of the family” than meets the eye.

Indeed, a lot of the fun of the movie is watching his character’s perfect exterior persona unravel to an almost hilarious degree.

Speaking on this to Dissolve, Stevens said:

“There was kind of a ‘charm’ dial and a ‘creepy’ dial that we dialled up and down from take to take.

“It wasn’t: ‘Do a funny [scene], do a less-funny one’ so much as in combination, how serious, how dark, how charming. The charm thing was big for Adam, because he had to get David in the door, and David had to win over at least 50% of the family if his plan was going to work, for him to make it to the second act.”

Stevens is aided in the movie by a universally flawless supporting cast, though special shout out should go to Monroe – who would later become one of our great modern day scream queens with the likes of It Follows and Watcher.

As Anna in The Guest, the actress somehow manages to make the gloomy, sullen character easy to root for.

It’s also worth noting that The Guest ends on one of the rare sequel stingers that is not frustrating but is in fact actually funny because it is played for laughs.

And when JOE recently had the opportunity to sit down with Stevens and Wingard when they were promoting their latest combination Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (they’ve both come a long way from $5 million budgets), we needed to ask them both about a potential follow-up to The Guest.

Because while the thriller was not a big hit at the box office, only grossing $2.7 million, on home video and streaming it has attracted a devout audience – with people still discovering it to this day.

And Stevens and Wingard confirmed to JOE that they have had conversations about a follow-up, with the latter stating: “I’ve talked with the writer Simon Barrett a lot about the potential of doing a sequel or even a miniseries.”

Like our recent call for a Nice Guys 2, we hope The Guest 2 will someday become a reality.

The Guest is streaming on Netflix in Ireland and the UK right now.

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