We open on a man jogging, glimpsing him only from behind. Though we can’t see his face, we can see he jogs with purpose. Then, a title card slams down over a blaring synth with ’70s “The Exorcist”-style lettering, and moments later we fade in on a field with a scarecrow wearing a gigantic pumpkin head grin. In the space of about 60 seconds, “You’re Next” filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have already announced their mission statement: a mysterious stranger, an unstoppable force and a Halloween setting signal to the audience (pretty much anyone who grew up in the VHS era), you are about to have a damn good time. A concept hatched after an accidental double-feature of “The Terminator” and “Halloween,” “The Guest” is the perfect synthesis of Cameron, Carpenter and Cannon [Films] and one of the most fun films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
We soon learn that the man running is a recently discharged soldier name David (Dan Stevens), a handsome, polite, southern gent with steely blue eyes, who is on his way to the home of Caleb Peterson, a fallen soldier who he served alongside in the army. David promised his friend that he would check in on his family if anything ever happened to him, and as soon as he is released, he makes the Peterson household his first stop. The Petersons (Leland Orser and Sheila Kelley) are skeptical at first, as any stranger showing up at your door might be cause for alarm, but David quickly proves he’s genuine by locating a picture of himself with Caleb on the living room mantle. Because of his genteel demeanor, the family invites him to stay for a little bit and he begins to integrate himself into each of their lives.
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Teens Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer) are also reluctant to welcome this ghostly reminder of their brother into their lives, but he succeeds in winning them over by helping them out in various ways. He lends a listening ear to Mom, throws back beers with Dad, helps Luke stand up to bullies and becomes the hero of one of Anna’s friends’ parties when he strolls in carrying two kegs over his shoulder. But because Wingard and Barrett never fail to cue you in on what genre they’re playing in—ominous push-ins on David’s face reveal that something’s not right, and his steely glare may elicit giddy laughter of anticipation—we know that its just a matter of time before the other shoe drops.
The first stirrings of trouble arise at a roadhouse bar where a confrontation with some of Luke’s bullies turns into a precision-fueled beat-down. David becomes the embodiment of whatever the situation calls for: both bodyguard and Adonis. Imagine if a young Tom Cruise had been cast in the title role in “The Terminator” instead of in “Risky Business” and you’ll have some idea of Stevens in the role. The actor will probably be unrecognizable to anyone who knows him from “Downton Abbey” but he’s absolutely magnetic here. As the tension mounts as to his true nature, there are also shades of “The Stepfather,” with a seemingly ordinary man hiding his darker impulses in plain sight.
The scope of the film expands when we’re introduced to the KPG, a military police force tracking David down for reasons we won’t spoil here. Lance Reddick is perfectly cast as a stentorian officer on the hunt and needless to say, the two forces are headed for a showdown. Once David arms himself shit really begins to hit the fan and many of the film’s best action sequences are back-to-back in the latter half of the film. The nonsense explanation for David’s motives are hilariously generic and completely ludicrous but we suspect that the filmmakers didn’t so much care about them to begin with. This B-movie logic is a slight disappointment because the relationships in the film had felt very real, but these are minor speed bumps in an otherwise fast-paced ride.
Though this writer was in the minority on their last film, “The Guest” still feels like a big step forward for Wingard and Barrett. The director-writer team have crafted a great-looking and sincere genre throwback without resorting to pastiche of some of their peers (“Hobo With A Shotgun”). The film is embedded with subtle stylistic cues—an excellent, Carpenter-indebted synth score and its setting in a nebulous ’80s/’90s/modern time period you can’t quite place—that teach you how to watch and appreciate it. The ensemble is perfectly cast (a rarity for this genre) which helps to make the first half a delightful slow burn instead of a check-your-watch-until-the-carnage-starts. If it’s a slight disappointment that the third act tosses those relationships aside for some logic-free, over-the-top bloodletting, it’s probably a sacrifice most hungry genre audiences are willing to make for such a fun ride. [B]