It starts with the eyes, incandescent blue—dreamy and seductive one moment, cold and alien the next. It all depends on the inflection. The eyes belong to Dan Stevens, playing a mysterious visitor who ingratiates himself to a rural family in the supremely entertaining new horror/thriller/comedy hybrid The Guest. But they also belong to Henry Fonda in 1968’s Once Upon A Time In The West, or Terry O’Quinn in 1987’s The Stepfather, to name two prominent antecedents. Director Adam Wingard surely understood the effect blue eyes have on the other characters—and, just as crucially, on the audience. Everyone wants to believe that this stranger has good intentions, because his presence is so confident and reassuring, just as the family in The Stepfather wants to believe they’re living with a modern-day Ward Cleaver. At the same time, they beat back the nagging suspicion that something’s wrong, because the fantasy is so intoxicating.
Bulked out from his slight frame from Downton Abbey, Stevens presents himself as the model American soldier—clean-cut, deferential, and strong, with a haircut that’s been through the rigors of basic training. When David (Stevens) turns up at the Peterson household, he makes a show of expecting nothing more than to pay his respects over their son Caleb, who died while they were fighting together in Iraq. Caleb’s grieving mother (Sheila Kelley) is happy to learn more about what happened her boy, and insists David he stay for a night or two, rejecting his worry that he’d be an imposition. The father (Leland Orser) accepts David, too, grateful to have a drinking buddy to justify his hard turn to the bottle, and his teenage son Luke (Brendan Meyer) benefits from having a big-brother type to protect him from bullies. Only Luke’s older sister, Anna (Maika Monroe), seems hostile—shades of Jill Schoelen in The Stepfather—but she comes around; David stepping out of the shower in nothing but a low-slung towel proves especially persuasive.
The questions hovering over The Guest—who is David, and what does he want?—are answered in good time, but Wingard (You’re Next) and his regular screenwriter, Simon Barrett, hold off as long as possible. There’s something empowering and true about David’s mission to protect and strengthen the Peterson clan, even if his methods are a little scary. In that respect, he’s the unhinged soldier in the squadron: a possible head case, but at least he’s fighting on your side. Though Wingard draws heavily on the filmic language of classic John Carpenter, The Guest doesn’t commit itself strictly to one genre or another. Elements of horror, black comedy, psycho thrillers, and social commentary merrily co-exist throughout much of the film, which keeps the audience as off-balance as the Peterson family as it withstands a rollout of chilling revelations.
Wingard’s direction is a robust throwback to the VHS gorefests of yore, but with a distinctly more modern slickness and snap, and he knows how to play around with the audience—a tense domestic scene where David stops cutting vegetables and merely holds the knife in his hand has a casual, delicious comic menace. Barrett adds another layer of plot that explains David’s motives more than necessary, perhaps in an effort to wedge political commentary into a story that doesn’t really need it. But the filmmakers are wise enough to keep building around Stevens, whose performance starts from a point of eerie, silver-tongued refinement, and steadily grows more sinister. He’s the slow-burning fuse on a fistful of dynamite.