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Director: Adam Wingard
Actors: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe
Writer: Simon Barrett
Country: USA
Runtime: 99 min
Rating: 18A

Sometimes, the makers of a film are not concerned with Academy Award nominations and refuse to take their art too seriously. Writing and directing duo Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard contributed to this year’s TIFF Midnight Madness programme with The Guest (2014), a throwback to the cheesy action thrillers of the 1980s. Starring Dan Stevens as a dashingly charming houseguest with something to hide, the film offers up laughs along with its thrills, striking a cool balance and keeping the film fun and endlessly entertaining even in its campy brutality.

The Guest

When soft-spoken stranger David (Dan Stevens) shows up at the Peterson residence claiming to be an old friend of their deceased son and brother, the family welcomes him into their house and into their lives. Appearing as kind, thoughtful, and unfailingly polite, David quickly becomes protective of the Peterson family members and takes every opportunity to help them in any way he can. Only twenty-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) distrusts David, even as she finds herself drawn to him. When David begins to show a penchant for violence, Anna – and the audience – realize that he is definitely not who he seems to be, and the real action begins in earnest.

This film will undoubtedly draw fans of the television series Downton Abbey and its dashing protagonist Matthew Crawley, played by Dan Stevens. The role of David is very different from that of Matthew, however, and watching a beloved actor excel as a completely unrecognizable character is a major part of the fun. Stevens is incredibly enchanting and effortlessly sexy as David, and although it may be difficult to distrust those baby blues, he masterfully hints at the fact that he is not exactly who he appears to be and that all is not right in his world.

The Guest

Another aspect of this film that stood out was its sound and music design. A thumping, edgy, synth-heavy score indicates that this movie knows where it’s at, maintaining a distinct feeling of modernity among the throwback moments. Director Wingard gains a lot of amusement playing with sound cues, often unsettling an audience with noises that lead us to believe that something is about to happen and then causing us to laugh at our own reaction. Without its horror movie music moments, this film would seem a lot less ominous, and sound is used masterfully to create an atmosphere of suspense and foreboding. When the intense action does occur it is often tinted with a campy humour that may annoy those looking for serious thriller, but will undoubtedly delight fans of this distinct style.

The Guest is a film that was clearly a lot of fun to make, and one can tell that the filmmakers involved enjoy their jobs immensely. Although the film is set during Halloween and plays with familiar horror movie tropes, it is more of an action thriller with a healthy dose of dry comedy. This work is the kind of film that may not achieve mainstream appeal, but has the potential to attain cult classic status instead. Cool and stylish, while simultaneously pulpy and trashy, The Guest may have convinced this critic to check out more Midnight Madness presentations at next year’s Festival, and is undeniably a hell of a good time.

Review written after TIFF 2014 screening