Welcome back to a new Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! This month we’re talking to Lindsay Traves, a horror/Batman/lotsa stuff expert who has bylines all over town, including Comics Gaming Magazine, Bloody Disgusting, Grim Journal, and of course right here at Daily Dead. She’s also stepped into co-hosting duties for The Pod and the Pendulum, a “weekly podcast covering every horror movie franchise, one movie and one episode at a time.”
For this month’s movie, Traves finally got me to dive into a film with a rabid following and a GIF that serves as Thirst Twitter’s answer to “do you read Sutter Cane?” I’m talking, of course, about Adam Wingard’s 2014 action/slasher hybrid, The Guest. The film follows a mysterious soldier named David (Dan Stevens), who shows up at the doorstep of the Peterson family claiming to be a friend of their late son Caleb, who was killed in Afghanistan. While Caleb’s mother, Laura (Sheila Kelley), is happy to have a connection to her son in the house, and young Luke (Brendan Meyer) is drawn to David’s confidence, sister Anna (Maika Monroe) is more skeptical.
David’s presence becomes increasingly troublesome for the family, as it becomes clear there’s more going on than he’s let on, with mysterious phone calls about plastic surgery and pathologically casual acts of violence sending up all manner of red flags. Just what’s going on with David, and can he be trusted? It’s likely that you all already know the answer to this, but it’s still a hell of a ride anyway, am I right? (If you haven’t seen The Guest, please consider this your standard spoiler alert as we’ll be discussing major plot points).
For her part, Traves has been singing The Guest’s praises since she first caught it at Toronto’s biggest film festival.
The first time I watched the guest was actually at TIFF, at Midnight Madness. My best friend’s not at all into horror and every year I drag her to one Midnight Madness movie. I usually try to pick the weirdest one, like I took her to Yakuza Apocalypse, I took her to The Man Who Feels No Pain. This one I just sort of had an extra ticket and didn't have anyone to go with and I was like, “You're going to two this year.” She was like, “Sure.” We went, we had a couple of beers, and I didn't know what to expect. I didn't do the math that it was the guys who had made You’re Next, and so both of us within ten minutes were like, “Oh, this is our favorite movie. It turns out this movie rocks!” And then I didn't shut up about it for years, all my other best friends didn't stop hearing about it...Very fond memories of my first watch on this one.
Now, I know we’re all tired of the “is it horror?” discussion as it’s been applied ad nauseum to all manner of movies. But don’t worry reader, because I powered through and asked Traves about it anyway. In all fairness, there’s a lot of action vibes to The Guest, so I was interested to get her take. And as she explains, the action is blended with a beloved horror subgenre.
So, I do think it is a horror movie because it has a lot of the hallmarks of slasher movies. And it's definitely referencing Halloween. It’s a Halloween [season] movie and it references the movie! But I think it's one of those multi-hyphenates, like I picked up on it when I saw it, but in the Q&A they actually talked about how they viewed it as a hybrid of like Terminator 2 and Halloween.
I am an annoying eagle eye type of movie watcher, like I'm the person who is mentally counting Easter eggs and paying attention to all of those types of things. And there are a lot of Halloween Easter eggs throughout the movie. You've got the Halloween III masks in the house of mirrors scene, a lot of really obvious Halloween references. I probably wouldn't have said David is like Michael Myers at first, but he totally is like Michael Myers. And there were a couple of moments where he's referencing T2, like he's got the whole thumbs up scene at the end, he’s got the whole kid liking the robot killer, etc. So I really felt that the whole way through, and also to Midnight Madness’ credit, I assumed this would be a horror movie without knowing very much about it.
This is a film that rewards viewers like Traves, who have an eye for detail. There are so many moments that could slip past you if you’re not paying attention, but if you do, they can make you laugh and creep you out in equal measure. Traves has a few favorites of her own.
Yeah, there are a few little cool moments. David has little one-liners that are blink-and-you-miss-it. When he's paying for drinks at the bar and the kid is like, “Where'd you get all that money?” David just goes, “Cash is easy to get.” What? I love that. He has all these weird, cryptic things that it’s like okay, “Cash is easy to get,” that means he stole it or he took it from someone. Those are the types of things that immediately evoke, like, “Where did he get cash from?” I think that’s so fun. And then my favorite laugh-out-loud, this guy is supernatural moment is when he comes into a party carrying two kegs [editor’s note: I, too, laughed my ass off watching Dan Stevens carry two full kegs into a party like a couple of six packs].
My other two favorite moments are where he's talking to Luke about [a fight with a bully] at school and he’s like, “What happened?” And Luke's like, “Oh, I beat him with a meter stick.” And David just goes, “Awesome.” I also love the pumpkin carving scene, and again the movie is punching us in the face: this is a Halloween movie and they're carving pumpkins! David is throwing around his butterfly knife, and he's like, “If kids are bullying you…” He gives him a few very reasonable steps about what to do, teaches him how to fight, and then he's like, “If not, just burn down their house with the whole family inside.”
The Guest really does have a delightfully bent sense of humor, and Traves points out that a lot of the film’s success in that department comes from Dan Stevens’ ability to play to the appropriate tone.
I love David as a character, and I think Dan Stevens is incredible. This is the first thing that I saw him in, thinking, “Who is this guy?’ because he's so funny. Actually, I think a lot about Edge of Tomorrow. Christopher McQuarrie was talking about Edge of Tomorrow, they were chatting about making that movie and how Tom Cruise looked at the script and said, “Oh, this is a comedy!” And if you watch how he acts in this dark sci-fi action movie, it's actually very, very funny, which works really well.
And I feel the same about David in this movie. Dan Stevens is really funny in this movie in the way that he's stoic and scary. I think I probably have the most fun just laughing at Dan Stevens sitting on a bed staring at nothing with the scary score playing. It's just so fun, the one-liners are so fun, the action is absurd. He beats up a bunch of kids!
One of the particularly interesting tricks that Wingard pulls off in the film is to give us this charming, funny character in David, but slowly reveal some ugly truths about him in a way that leaves us in doubt about just how we’re supposed to feel about him. Is he a flawed hero, an anti-hero, or just a flat-out villain? For Traves, things start to take a turn during a gun deal gone wrong with Higgings (Ethan Embry, showing up just long enough to get shot a bunch).
I think at that point you're thinking, “Oh, this is a complicated hero, maybe he's a little complicated.” And it's really because of Luke that you're unsure. He starts off and you're rooting for him in a way, and then he does some questionable stuff, but Luke still being interested and intrigued by him makes you kind of question whether or not you're rooting for him. I think when you do the math, it's really not until the ending that you change your mind.
Because when he kills Spencer’s [Luke and Anna’s dad, played by Leland Orser] colleague to get him a promotion, you're like, “That was a bad thing,” but you’re really, “Okay, maybe I'm still rooting for this guy.” And he's having these mysterious phone calls about this plastic surgery, “Okay, this guy’s at least flawed.” And you kind of think you're following Luke, but I think Anna is our center in this movie. And I think when Anna starts to lose trust in him, when he starts to scare her...I think that's a moment where you’re like, “Oh, he's a bad guy.”
As we find out that David has been on the run from a covert super-soldier program, he eventually takes his ultimate heel turn by killing both Peterson parents and infamously chucking a couple of hand grenades into a diner to tie up another loose end in Anna’s friend, Kristen (Tabatha Shaun). But Traves points out there’s a bit of dramatic irony as the film keeps Luke in the dark regarding what David’s done, creating a twisted version of the John Connor/T-800 dynamic.
Yeah, and again, that's kind of like The Terminator of it all, and it's kind of an interesting twist because in T2, the Terminator has done a lot of killing. John Connor has to be like, “You can't kill people!” But he still loves this guy, he’s his protector because John Connor is this scrappy kid who's had it rough. And Luke’s this bullied loser who's had it rough, and this big strong man came and protected him and defended him. It's like, “This is pretty cool, it's like my own Terminator.” It's a cool flip of that script.
But even after he crosses the line, there’s still a discussion to be had about to what degree David is acting based on his own inherent sociopathy and to what degree he’s working based on how he’s been programmed. Is all of this a con on the Peterson family, or did he originally truly intend to help them?
I took it as him taking this family on as his mission, in a way. I think he's a soldier who gets focused on a mission and does anything to complete it. And not to keep beating The Terminator horse, but when he kills Spencer's colleague, he is terminating something for a means to an end, for making this family happy. So there are a couple of interpretations of who David is and what he's really doing. I truly believe when he shows up, his intention is to do right by Caleb and help his family.
There are those who question whether or not David actually knew the late Caleb at all, given the reveal that David’s escape from the government program includes plastic surgery. But Traves isn’t convinced that reveal is proof that David’s been conning the family all along.
I know that a lot of people read that the plastic surgery [file] is a “post” photo, like he has gotten a new face to look like this person named David. I read it as he and Caleb were in the same program, which is like a Treadstone program. They realize it's a bad program, so they burn it to the ground. David survived and now he's seeking plastic surgeries to survive, and I do believe that Caleb was a colleague of his. Especially because he says that Caleb “would understand what I have to do.”
The film’s climax is particularly interesting as David stalks Anna and Luke at a haunted house being put on by the local high school. We get the classic slasher showdown, with Anna and Luke eventually getting the upper hand and seemingly killing him and leaving him as the building burns. But of course, like any good slasher, we find out David’s not dead, but rather faked his death to sneak out dressed as a fireman.
What’s intriguing, though, is that given we’ve just seen David take down an entire mercenary team, it seems improbable that a couple of kids could do him in. Unless, of course, he saw an opportunity to get away without killing the kids? That’s what Traves saw in the conclusion.
It's all about his own survival at this point. He's doing right by this family, but his prime directive is to stay alive and to stay away from this Treadstone company. So I viewed it as he was doing right by this family (which meant terminating people sometimes), but when he had been made, he realized he had to go on the run, which meant killing the parents because that's just how he views things. And [with Luke and Anna] he realized he can actually get away by faking his death, because he already got away this exact same way, so, “I can just fake my death, I don’t even have to kill these kids.”
If we did want to think of him as a trained super-soldier, what would be the right thing to do? Preserve life, but end life if you have to for your mission. I'm not an expert, but that seems on par: preserve life, but also don't let anything get in your way. And I don't think that that’s the soldier’s directive, maybe that's like the movie’s directive.
So of course, as the credits roll and we know David’s not dead, we’re left to wonder what will become of him. But unlike the many slashers that came before, we haven’t had any sequels come along to try and answer that question. And for Traves’ part, that’s how she likes it.
So, I'm very much a purist. I’m always the person who's like [in reference to sequels/remakes], “Don't make it, I don't want it.” I don't want to be that person, though, because I do understand that's kind of a boring and sulky position. That said, I'm very of the mind that movies that are just one thing can do so much, the stakes can be so high, and I just think that movies that are really contained are really excellent. Some examples of some of my favorite movies in the past 10 to 15 years are Kingsman: The Secret Service, Pacific Rim, and this movie. I think all three of them should have been standalones, and two of them became sequel factories to their own detriment, in my own personal opinion, and that's okay.
So, do I want to see a sequel to this movie? Absolutely not. I think this movie created a specific tone, it created a specific character, and it was mysterious. We're trying to figure out if these characters [David and Caleb] even knew each other and what happened. I think when you start to answer questions, you cheapen that a lot. So, do I want a sequel/prequel/spinoff/remake? Absolutely no, not at all. Maybe give me another character from this program that's completely different and not related, but just let Barrett and Wingard make another movie.