Exploitation movies can be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. From the outputs of B-movie maestro Roger Corman (a man who’s career has now spanned over 60 years) through to the glorious schlock of Troma films with titles like Surf Nazis Must Die and Cannibal! The Musical, the sub-genre can make for some ludicrously trashy entertainment. Among others, exploitation film has provided initial career platforms for everyone from Martin Scorsese to Nicolas Winding Refn and it’s a tradition that runs deep through the history of modern cinema.
As the new-crowned kings of independent horror, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (You’re Next, V/H/S) have been putting together masterful pastiches for some time now and they seem like the perfect pairing to pay homage to this wonderful legacy of B-movie wiffle. With self-referential humour in buckets and an inspired performance from Dan Stevens, the duo’s latest effort, The Guest, doesn’t disappoint.
The Downtown Abbey starlet plays David, a soldier who turns up out of the blue at the Peterson household, claiming he was in the same army unit as their now deceased son. As he begins to ingratiate himself into the family fold, it (somewhat inevitably) becomes apparent that he has quite a few skeletons in his closet. It’s a plot that builds and builds and builds, piling ludicrous situations on top of one another in the lead up to a gloriously bombastic finale.
All this ridiculous fun is anchored by an unexpectedly brilliant performance from Dan Stevens, who all of a sudden looks like a true movie star. Blending the charming with the sinister, Stevens’ turn is blessed with pinpoint comic timing and a screen presence so enrapturing that the camera seems loathe to pan away from him. It’s a massive jump to go from BBC period dramas to a psychopath strewn exploitation homage, but Stevens takes to his new surroundings like a duck to water. His performance is so massive, in fact, that it manages to overshadow every other actor in the film, which is only a minor issue considering that this is his movie through and through.
The Guest revels in the cheesy and the ridiculous in equal measure, complete with over-the-top fight scenes and an abundance of knowing nods to everything from Carpenter to Troma. Wingard and Barrett’s work always feels like its been made with heart, and this effort is no exception. It seems like the kind of film that the cast and crew would’ve had an absolute blast making.
An incredible amount of work has also been put into the synth-heavy score, hearkening back to the John Carpenter classics yet never feeling dated. In fact, the idea of a modern twist on the tried and tested permeates every inch of the movie, and The Guest accomplishes this balance with panache to spare.
The film’s only defining issue is that, for a horror tinged action thriller, it is neither very horrifying, nor very thrilling. While the conclusive fun-house styled scene is marginally creepy (and also serves to showcase some gorgeously colourized cinematography), it’s quite frankly, not enough. That said, it’s hard to take a film down a peg for a lack of thrills when it’s so much damn fun to watch. Honestly, there was barely a moment where I wasn’t left laughing uproariously or staring open-mouthed at the ballsy brilliance of everything up on the screen.
The Guest is a marvellously energetic little film. In the current era of found footage and cheap jump scares it’s nice to see something so joyously and unashamedly old-school. Wingard and Barrett are looking more and more like the real deal and this film just proves that they’re arguably the smartest and most innovative filmmakers currently working in Western horror. Knowingly melodramatic, wonderfully cheesy and all-out bonkers, The Guest is an absolute blast from beginning to end.