Director Adam Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett, who last gave us horror favorite 'You're Next,' return with 'The Guest,' a genre throwback to the dark suspense thrillers of the late '80s and early '90s -- but this isn't mimicry or simply homage. Wingard and Barrett put their wryly sinister spin on this consistently engaging and unnerving story, throwing in a dash of classic John Carpenter for good measure. And who knew 'Downton Abbey' star Dan Stevens could be such a badass? 

Stevens stars as David, a soldier returned home from war to visit upon the family of his fallen comrade, but there's something behind David's exceedingly charming and cornfed exterior. At first he's helpful, teaching the son, Luke, how to defend himself properly from school bullies and inspiring him to stand up for himself and be more aggressive. David fends off jerks at a party he attends with 20-year-old Anna, and commiserates with the parents of his brother-at-arms. A one-night stay quickly becomes a few nights, and then a couple more, and the longer David stays, the more something seems sort of ... off about him, to Anna, at least.

Stevens plays David with all the charm and charisma of a contemporary superhero, like Chris Evans as Captain America. It wouldn't be a stretch to give this guy his own starring role in a Marvel franchise. It's easy to see why the family might be oblivious to his darker side, even willfully so, given how helpful and kind he seems.

Like 'You're Next,' 'The Guest' also has some laughs, blending the dark humor seamlessly with the more creepy and unnerving elements, thanks in part to the excellent choice in score, which utilizes contemporary music that, like the work of Wingard and Barrett, also emanates that retro vibe -- the music and narrative work in tandem to ensure an incredibly specific tone, one that recalls the badass pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. And it's likely no coincidence that the font for the opening title is insanely Carpenter-esque.

To say much about the plot would, of course, spoil the fun, but rest assured that once hints and peeks at David's previous life start to come into play, the film goes from simple tension-building with moments of abrupt and exquisitely intense violence to full-blown pump-up-the-volume action. Wingard and Barrett have such an incredible handle on their tone and aesthetic, and the climactic sequence, which takes place at a school dance during Halloween (please, stay seated if you can) is fiercely fun.

David is the kind of classic movie villain we don't really get anymore -- a guy who is so inhuman that we actually have to watch him turn on a switch to remember how to feel, almost like he's accessing parts of his programming. You could take elements of 'The Guest' and say that it's part commentary on PTSD. Sure, some of that feels like a consideration, but the film isn't that heavy. It's just the kind of film Kurt Russell or maybe Dolph Lundgren might have starred in way back when, only it's not -- Wingard and Barrett made it here and now.

Review Rating

'The Guest' screened at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.