‘See [insert actor’s name here] as you’ve never seen them before!’ isn’t always a successful marketing strategy. One suspects obsessive fans of Dan Stevens’s ill-fated Matthew Crawley in ‘Downton Abbey’ (are they called Dandies? Dantons? Crawfish?) would be content to see the actor play nothing but rakish, tweed-waistcoated toffs until the end of his days. For the rest of us, however, the surprising new side he shows in Adam Wingard’s sharp, rattling retro thriller is a welcome switch-up. Those blandly blond good looks, here accessorised with an apple-pie American accent, are put to sinister use: he’s supposed to be faintly unidentifiable, a walking identikit who keeps any personality just out of reach behind a veneer of pleasantness.
Only sullen teen Anna (the excellent Maika Monroe, making a strong claim to scream-queen status with this and the upcoming ‘It Follows’) senses something amiss when David (Stevens) shows up on her family’s doorstep in sleepy New Mexico. His arrival breaks the fug of mourning that has descended on the household ever since eldest son Caleb was killed on duty in Iraq. He claims to have been their boy’s best friend, an alibi that secures him an indefinite invitation to stay from Anna’s parents. His military credentials are plausible enough – he puts his fighting training to bone-cracking use against the high-school bullies of Anna’s younger brother. But when a suspicious Anna begins snooping, and is informed by the army that ‘David’ is actually dead, nobody wants to listen.
Wingard, a formidable new name in horror who previously brought us the nifty ‘You’re Next’, coolly lets things escalate from there to a state of delirious violence. It’s a compulsively absurd tale fashioned as a kind of extreme allegory for the effects of grief-induced displacement. Mostly, however, it’s an effectively bloody, breakneck ride, given an extra coat of alluring gloss by the John Carpenter-influenced 1980s styling that is currently all the rage in the genre.
‘The Guest’ is not new, exactly, but Wingard knows just which buttons to push, and he pushes them with gusto. Stevens, meanwhile, has never been better: the Abbey would have been a lot livelier with him in this state.