The Guest might have the most interesting premise for a horror movie in the past decade. Screenwriter Simon Barrett, in his interview with RedLetterMedia, said that the core of the film was an attempt to parody the genre of late 2000s sanctimonious anti-war films like In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs. The catch would be that the movie’s main character would essentially be a slasher villain.
The premise is a dark joke at the expense of its genre and at the expense of the American military which the movie plays up as a conspiratorial entity turning young men into some sort of unexplained unstoppable super soldiers.
Dan Stevens (Downtown Abbey) plays David Collins. As the film introduces him, he’s a former veteran of the war in Afghanistan who just got out of a military hospital and has decided to visit the family of one of his dead comrades to convey a message to them.
As Barrett says in the aforementioned interview, the challenge of writing and performing The Guest isn’t creating a story where you’d believe a character like David is secretly some sort of monster. The challenge is that David needs to be charismatic enough to make people believe he isn’t. Dan Stevens does this perfectly. At his face, he presents himself as genuinely folksy and down to Earth. Behind closed doors, he’s a sociopath who lacks no qualms about murdering innocent people for his or other people’s gain.
Thus part of what makes The Guest interesting is the fact that the film seems to imply his initial mission to visit the Peterson family was totally sincere. He doesn’t just role up to this random family in Texas wanting to murder them slowly like a normal slasher villain would. Instead, he becomes something of a bizarre slasher villain for hire and starts helping the Peterson family in violent ways.
Naturally such a sociopathic walking tank like David quickly starts drawing negative attention. He eventually gets tracked down by his former commanders and ultimately decides to hunt down the Peterson family for good measure in true slasher movie fashion.
It’s not totally clear what subject a theme this dark is ultimately satirizing. Either the film is spoofing the absurdity of the anti-war drama genre by ratcheting it up to an extreme or it’s saying that military experience and war trauma returns people back to their homes as psychopaths who can’t integrate back into society. If it’s the latter, that’s a rather dark theme. Early in the film, the Peterson’s question whether or not its smart to bring someone suffering from PTSD into their home but that they should’ve considered that was a good idea before they allowed their child to go fight in a war.
If the moral of the story is that war follows its soldiers back home, than The Guest is a film about the ways it affects other people. The movie explores how David interacts with different people at different levels. Some of the characters are still processing their grief and others are hardly aware of the fake that a war seems to be happening at all. The fact that David can’t turn off his training is expressed in numerous ways throughout the film. In one scene, he’s seen sitting motionless in his bedroom. Barrett said in these scenes that the idea is that he’s doing everything he can to avoid wasting energy and calories.
David is so mechanical that he can’t help but bring the war zone into this small town. Thus the film’s conclusion where the military tries to hunt him down and he’s forced to take it out on the Peterson family and their friends for finding out too much about who he is.
War trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder are things that have been discussed deeply in the aftermath of the War on Terror. Too many young men and women came home with nightmares, anxiety and unresolved guilt. Too many war veterans have taken their own life because they couldn’t work through their emotions.
The Guest may be a bit too exploitational in its portrayal of these real world issues but is certainly part and parcel of the homage the film is going for. The film’s soundtrack and title font borrow a lot from the low concept horror films of John Carpenter. He certainly wasn’t afraid to make movies that said controversial things about politics…
Regardless, The Guest is one of the most genuinely underrated films of the last decade. It only made half it’s five million dollar budget in the box office upon release. The creative team of Adam Wingard and Barrett were only saved from Hollywood obscurity by the fact that they had already been signed at Lionsgate to write and direct the half baked sequel Blair Witch. If you’re among the 99.999% of living humans who haven’t seen The Guest, I highly recommend giving it a chance! On its own, it’s one of the most original horror movie premises in recent years and it’s well worth checking out!