One of the strengths of horror as a genre is that it’s very malleable. There’s a lot of different types of films that you can comfortably call a “horror” film and still be fairly accurate. You can do horror as action, horror as mystery, horror as thriller, horror as sci-fi, cosmic horror, psychological horror, horror comedy, gross-out horror, etc. And this is, of course, without getting into the huge variety of theme and tone and subject matter that is open. This means there’s pretty much a horror film for everyone. It also means that sometimes you have to really stop and think, “wait, is this a horror movie?” And that’s part of what is happening with Adam Wingard’s 2014 film, The Guest.
The Guest opens with a shot of a man running through vast, open fields somewhere in what looks to be the Midwest. He makes his way to the home of Laura Peterson, and introduces himself as “David” and claims to be a friend of her son Caleb, who died in Afghanistan. It becomes clear that the Peterson family has been largely broken by Caleb’s death, Laura and her husband Spencer particularly, but youngest son Luke and daughter Anna are clearly rebelling or retreating in various ways from the trauma of losing Caleb. Laura insists that “David” stay a few days, since it clear he has nowhere to go, and despite Spencer’s objections and Anna’s distrust, “David” quickly wins over the family. He fills Spencer’s need for a son he can relate to on an adult level, and Luke and Anna’s need for a big brother figure. The Peterson’s are so happy to have “David” around they overlook some warning signs, such as a peculiar lack of sleep, and a capacity for extraordinary violence and emotional manipulation. Anna eventually realizes that “David” is not who he says he is after he kills two minor criminals and frames her drug-dealing boyfriend for the crime, and her investigations trigger the arrival of a clandestine military contracting group to retrieve “David” who is part of an experiment in creating “better” soldiers that went wrong. Their arrival triggers “David’s” survival mode, and he cuts a swath of destruction through the town focused on eliminating the Peterson’s, as the greatest risk to his continued freedom. With only Luke and Anna left alive, the three are trapped in a burning building when Luke stabs “David” fatally. “David” lives long enough to tell Luke that he did the right thing. The films ends on a genre-appropriate stinger, with Luke and Anna being treated by paramedics and Anna seeing a very much alive “David” leave the building and escape.
In many ways, The Guest is a tonal follow up to Wingard and screen-writer Simon Barrett’s previous collaboration, You’re Next. Both films occupy a sort of hybrid space between a horror film and an action film, and both have “mysteries” at their core which are mostly there for window dressing. Careful viewing of both films even indicates that, in fact, they take place in the same cinematic universe. But while You’re Next played the action/thriller angle almost from the start and kept that tone throughout, The Guest builds up much more of a quiet menace, letting us know that something is very, very wrong with “David” and this situation, and releasing all that tension in an apocalyptic manner. It’s a smart difference given that the theme of this film is very much contrary to what you’d expect out of a “typical” horror movie. In many ways, “David” functions as a Mary Poppins-esque figure. He’s the mysterious stranger that arrives into the lives of this typical family and fixes them in ways that they many not have realized were broken. What they don’t realize, of course, is that he’s fixing things in casually violent and murderous ways. At one point, Spencer even likens a particularly tragic stroke of good fortune he’s experienced at work to wishing on a monkey’s paw.
Other than the “be careful what you wish for” semi-moral of the tale, the film is somewhat slight. Which isn’t a criticism, really, as the film is well shot, well acted, and features extremely relateable and sympathetic characters. The actions scenes are exciting, the scenes of menace are frightening, and when it’s funny it’s genuinely funny. But the film doesn’t aspire to be more than a slightly arch and smart horror-thriller, which occasionally comes across as an excess of self-awareness. That stinger, while tone and genre appropriate, almost doesn’t sit quite with the rest of the film. It turns much of what went before into something of a shaggy-dog story, and while I personally adore that ending, I can’t help but wonder if a less explicit version of the same revelation might have worked better. The smartest thing the film does, though, is leave that central mystery of who “David” really is unresolved. We know he’s not “David”, from a very brief glance at the real “David”, but we know he is unmistakably someone who did know Caleb, in some way, from the military. There’s some room for ambiguity in who he really is and why he really came, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, and the film-makers recognize this and leave it a question that can never be answered because, with this kind of story, there can never be a satisfying answer.