There’s something not quite right about David (Dan Stevens), the title character of Adam Wingard’s wickedly entertaining thriller The Guest. At a glance, he seems like the model man in uniform—a polite, soft-spoken war veteran, blessed with both the all-American good looks and aw-shucks charisma of Chris Evans’ heroic Steve Rogers. Arriving without notice on the doorstep of the Petersons, to “look after” the family of his fallen brother-in-arms, David ingratiates himself immediately: The bereaved parents (Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser) see a little of their slain son in this accommodating visitor, while their meek youngest child, Luke (Brendan Meyer), gains a protective, surrogate older brother. Only teenage daughter Anna (Maika Monroe, a terrific Final Girl) senses what the audience does about this mysterious soldier, though her judgment is quickly clouded by a rush of hormones, the only sensible response to such rock-hard abs and old-fashioned congeniality. Who but the most iron-willed could resist the charms of this dashing military man?
Horror fans, of course, will see David’s true colors long before he completely reveals them. But part of the fun of The Guest is how inevitably everything goes FUBAR, the violence creeping slowly but surely into its sleepy, small-town setting. The film gleefully recalls a very specific strain of Hollywood junk, such wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing potboilers as Fear and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Stylistically, the influences are more distinguished. Wingard and his regular screenwriter, Simon Barrett, have crafted an even better (and funnier) genre hybrid than their previous full-length collaboration, You’re Next. There’s a touch of early James Cameron in the heavy artillery of the second half, while everything from the synth score to the autumnal atmosphere evokes the best of John Carpenter. (The filmmakers even provide a Dr. Loomis stand-in, played by steely Wire alum Lance Reddick.)
The Guest flirts with a subversive political subtext, especially once David starts proactively involving himself in the lives of his hosts. For a few fleeting moments, the film appears to be taking aim at a worthy target—the way the American people silently condone savage military aggression when it suits their best interests. Mostly, however, Wingard and Barrett put fruit of a lower-hanging variety in their crosshairs. Their latest approaches a kind of B-movie bliss in its collision of ruthless action, delirious dark comedy, and Drive-style pastiche (the latter leaping to mind during the tour-de-force finale, set to some moody electronic pop). Muscular as the filmmaking is, it’s the equally strapped Stevens who makes the blend of tones work. Leaving the manners (and native accent) of Downton Abbey far behind, the actor turns David into an indelible villain—Captain America reborn as a force of hunky malevolence. Dumb fun is rarely this smartly delivered.