The Guest is a glorious throwback to medium-budget action flicks

Having made their director-writer team mark with the home invasion thriller You’re Next, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett followed it up with the frantic action-sci-fi hybrid, The Guest. Kicking off as a mysterious thriller, The Guest feels like a movie you forgot to rent during the early 90s, a glorious throwback to medium-budget action flicks that, in another lifetime, could have been made by Cannon Films.

Freshly discharged from service, ex-soldier David (Dan Stevens) turns up on the doorstep of the Peterson family, professing to be a friend of their deceased son. David kept a promise to visit the Petersons, but with nowhere to go and no immediate plans, the family insist he stays with them. Tensions are strained in the aftermath of their bereavement, particularly between Laura (Sheila Kelley) and her husband Spencer (Leland Orser), who has also clashed with their daughter Anna (Maika Monroe). Meanwhile, their younger child, Luke (Brendan Meyer), is being bullied at school.

David’s polite and helpful presence immediately acts as a buffer to the fractious family dynamics and he sets about befriending them all. Even the initially sceptical Anna comes around to his charms. But soon David’s lack of sleep, mysterious phone calls and aptitude for abrupt violence begin to point towards something undefinably sinister. Suddenly, shots are fired, cars are crashed and hand grenades are thrown; it’s a bold change of direction, but expertly done. Just when we think we know what The Guest is up to, the film turns into the Universal Soldier sequel we never knew we wanted. (Not counting the five actual sequels we actually got.)

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The Guest, released the same year as It Follows, finds Monroe once again on the run from an unstoppable killer; at least in The Guest, she has more agency over the spiralling situation as she attempts to uncover the truth about her family’s unexpected visitor. The government man is played by Lance Reddick, who has been heaping gravitas on to everything from The Wire to John Wick for years. And there is the great character actor Orser, playing Spencer, who has made a career out of playing guys you’re never quite sure if you like.

Stevens makes David a charismatic central presence, who we are initially on the fence about. His unshakable self-confidence makes him very likable – but is he an anti-hero or the bad guy? Stevens is believable as a tough nut too, aided and abetted by some exciting, crunchy fight scenes. A one-against-many bar scrap is a highlight, and somewhat reminiscent of Terminator 2, as David takes down Luke’s bullies with a clinical, almost robotic efficiency.

The final key ingredient is the throbbing, synth score from Steve Moore of Zombi, that pulses across the movie like a flickering ECG. Combined with an electronic soundtrack featuring Clan of Xymox, Survive and Perturbator, The Guest finds a sonic identity that’s as memorable as its visual one. The music is such a large part of The Guest’s DNA that it even got a sequel earlier this year in the form of a soundtrack to an as yet unfilmed part two.

As the mystery of the beginning is superseded by an adrenaline shot in the second half, The Guest moves into a different gear. Don’t overthink it because The Guest has no interest in bothering your brain – it’s only interested in getting your heart pumping.