You’re kind of setting yourself up for failure when you tell someone a movie is surprising. The moment you say that, the person you’re talking to has no choice but to expect the surprise. They scrutinize everything extra carefully, become more sensitive to clues or red herrings they might have otherwise overlooked. Telling someone a surprise is coming very much defeats the purpose of said surprise. The Guest, however — back on Netflix after a long absence — wants you to know a surprise is coming, and it’s tremendous fun watching that twist play out.
Directed by Adam Wingard, a horror director (best known for You’re Next and the recent Blair Witch revival) with a penchant for making subversive films on a budget, The Guest begins when a man named David Collins (Dan Stevens) arrives at the home of Laura and Spencer Peterson (Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser). The Petersons are grieving the loss of their eldest son, Caleb, and David, fresh off the Greyhound from active duty, says he served with him and came to pass along his last regards. It’s not long before the Petersons invite David to stay with them for a few days, and he immediately begins to ingratiate himself to the family. He befriends Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe), Caleb’s siblings who still live at home, and begins to help out around the house.
The whole time, The Guest isn’t being particularly coy: something is off about David from minute one. While most of the characters also share this suspicion, it doesn’t take much for them to drop their guard quickly, as a series of simple and sometimes startling gestures warm the Petersons to him. What seems like a home invasion horror movie is quickly inverted as David starts to become hostile — not to the Peterson kids, but to those who threaten them. In a way, the movie is about white male privilege, and how men are both encouraged and rewarded for adhering to toxic masculinity. Even if it’s easy to see that said toxic masculinity is likely to come and bite everyone in the ass.
Stevens is tremendous fun in the lead role: a man aware of his handsomeness and machismo and how people respond to it. This is good, as The Guest hinges entirely on his performance and his ability to make his gaze look friendly in one moment and murderous the next. The whole affair is very much an ’80s thriller transposed to the 21st century with all of the touchpoints: troubled high school kid, a young woman who seems stuck in her small-town dead-end job, parents who are more afterthoughts than nurturing people, and a so-cheesy-it’s-good synth soundtrack. Despite the ’80s aesthetics, The Guest is ambiguously modern — it’s a little unclear when exactly the story is set, but cell phones are common and laptops still have disc drives.
Despite being a thriller, The Guest is more playful than scary or tense, taking the tropes of one genre, messing around with the expectations they set, and then using their momentum to do something entirely different. It’s also single-minded; a movie with very little interest in the women in its story — a real shame considering the film stars Monroe, the lead of It Follows, a landmark horror film that debuted in 2014, the same year as The Guest.
At a brisk hour and forty minutes, The Guest absolutely breezes by, never idling any longer than it has to or dishing out any more details than necessary. It’s a thriller that wants to be more fun than tense, and more clever than smart — the perfect binge for days and weeks that seem both too long and not long enough all at once.