Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s recent work together has generated some well-deserved buzz. You’re Next (2011) is one of the smartest and most fun home-invasion slasher movies of recent years. Their follow-up, The Guest (2014), is a deliciously fun action-thriller with a strong vein of black comedy that draws on some pillars of 80’s and 90’s genre films.
It seems almost every review of the film has foregrounded its 80s influences. In his programme write-up for the Toronto International Film Festival, Colin Geddes calls it “a slick, eighties-style action thriller without resorting to parody or pastiche.” Writing for The Dissolve, Scott Tobias makes multiple comparisons between The Guest and The Stepfather (1987), and writes that “Wingard’s direction is a robust throwback to the VHS gorefests of yore, but with a distinctly more modern slickness and snap….” David Hughes, at Empire Online, makes a similar connection when he writes, “It’s almost as if Barrett watched The Stepfather and The Terminator back to back and thought, ‘What if, instead of trying to kill Sarah Connor, the Terminator moved in with her?’
These points echo some of Barrett and Wingard’s comments on the DVD commentary track.
The whole genesis of this project was really coming up with a movie that had strong influences from Halloween and Terminator, and [they] always saw, structurally, this film to be sort of like an inverted Halloween–whereas Michael Myers, instead of being the faceless shape that’s watching you from a distance, he’s the beautiful friend right inside your house…. (01:10:00)
All of these influences come through especially clear in The Guest’s basic premise of a mysterious guest thrust into unsuspecting and ordinary lives, and in its trapped-in-a-haunted-house-with-a-killer finale.
The film adopts another convention that took root in 1978’s Halloween and grew throughout the next decade: “the final girl.” Barrett could be describing Halloween’s Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) when he says “that character…[is] always the least likeable character in an 80s slasher–the kind of boring ‘final girl’ who’s a little uptight…” (00:26:50). Maika Monroe’s character in The Guest is both sassier and savvier than her filmic predecessors, which was a deliberate choice by Barrett and Wingard. As Barrett explains, “We wanted her to be strong and funny and sarcastic and it was kind of playing into 80s nostalgia in the way that the kids are the smart ones who get that there’s something incredibly weird about this psychopathic ex-soldier and the parents are totally oblivious” (00:26:50).
All of these points are perfectly valid, and kudos to the reviewers for picking up on them. But what’s rarely mentioned is that, while the slasher influences come from the 80s, the action sequences get their ammunition from the 90s. The slow-motion shootout in the Peterson’s backyard that has sheets fluttering and bullets flying as David (Dan Stevens) dives through the air in a firefight with a heavily armed squad of mercenaries led by Major Carver (Lance Reddick) seems to have satisfied Wingard’s desire to film “John Woo-style, slow-motion, over-the-top gun fights” (01:10:45). Similarly, the butterfly knife that David flicks open before giving it to young Luke (Brendan Meyer) is an homage to Woo’s Face/Off (01:30:15).
Another significant influence on the film that I haven’t seen mentioned yet relates to the slow zooms–repeated throughout The Guest–on David sitting alone and staring off into space. Wingard explains that the intention behind these shots was
to give an audience a moment to just look at [David] and project [their] own feelings, cuz we never actually know what David is thinking at any point in this movie. The whole idea of the film really was for the audience to project what they wanted him to be thinking, and those moments are kind of about that…. (00:17:50)
This concept and technique came from a 2012 music video starring Jake Gyllenhaal, featuring Time to Dance by French group The Shoes (00:17:50), which is unsettling, well done, and worth watching. Although the shots are very similar, viewers are much more likely to see some humor and warmth beneath David’s icy blue eyes than Gyllenhaal’s. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that’s saying something.
The beauty of The Guest is that, despite these myriad influences–or perhaps because of the diversity of them–it is more than the sum of its parts. It never feels like it’s just replicating moments we’ve seen before. Wingard and Barrett add so many ingredients to the mix that they end up with something uniquely appetizing. Though it does make the film a little hard to categorize, which might throw off some viewers, it also makes it a rare treat.
Next time we’ll hear Wingard and Barrett’s thoughts on test screenings and the attitudes of new, young filmmakers.
To be continued!
What do you think? Did you like The Guest? Did you notice even more influences? Can you suggest other films that fans of The Guest might enjoy? Leave some comments below and let us know!
The Guest (2014) | Directed by Adam Wingard | Written by Simon Barrett | Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Sheila Kelley | Commentary by Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett