“I’m a soldier, man. I like guns.”
Even as someone who grew up in the 80s and has a lot of nostalgia for the movies of that time, I still recognise it as a pretty dodgy time for film making. The glory days of the 70s auteurs were over, and the budgets and technology of the 90s were still a few years away from when empty spectacle could be at least entertaining. But if there’s one kind of movie the 80s got right, it was boobs out comedies. But if there was another kind of movie the 80s got right, it was the low budget thriller.
The kinds of movies where everyday people in everyday towns meet some kind of loner who may not be quite what they seem. No need for supernatural, big action set pieces or even big name stars. Just one messed up person coming in to wreak havoc on suburban America, preferably to a John Carpenter-esque soundtrack of driving synths. And it turns out that one of the best 80s low budget thrillers was actually made in 2014, and it is The Guest.
The Paterson family live in Small Town USA, where they’re all under the shadow of eldest Paterson son, Caleb, who died while on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. There’s the still mourning mother (Sheila Kelley as Laura), the stressed out father (Leland Orser as Spencer), young adult daughter (Maika Monroe as Anna) and high school aged youngest son (Brendan Meyer as Luke). One day, David (Dan Stevens) arrives at their door with a story about fighting alongside Caleb in Afghanistan. Apparently, Caleb’s dying wish was for David to check in on his family, tell them how much Caleb loved them, and make sure they’re OK.
Soon, making sure they’re OK includes things like beating up and seriously injuring Luke’s school bullies, and buying guns from Anna’s shady friends. As Anna starts to dig into David’s past, every answer she discovers only makes him more mysterious and seemingly, more dangerous.
If you recognise Dan Stevens’ name, or more likely, you recognise his face, then it’s probably from Downton Abbey. Playing cousin Matthew, the heir to the estate and will/they won’t they love interest of Lady Mary for the first three seasons, Stevens apparently left that show for fear of being type cast if he stayed too long. If that’s the case, he couldn’t have chosen a better role to break free of Downton than The Guest.
Apart from his flawless American accent, the character of David couldn’t be further from cousin Matthew. He’s cold, threatening and menacing, but also believable and charming when trying to make the Patersons warm to him. It’s a great performance if you’ve never seen Stevens before. It’s a phenomenal one if you have seen him on Downton Abbey.
The Guest is the kind of movie that may get criticised for being all style, no substance. But I think it’s the kind of movie where the style is the substance. It keeps so much concealed and close to the vest for so long, that when all hell breaks loose in the third act, it’s the kind of ludicrously, over the top absurdity, that it transcends that to become so much more. It was a style used to great effect in the 80s, and while it’s gone largely ignored in the decades since, The Guest proves there’s still plenty of life left in it.