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film review

Dan Stevens in The Guest.Ursula Coyote

A mysterious stranger appears at your door. Do you: a) converse briefly and then invite him to stay with your family? or b) fire a shotgun at her through the locked screen door?

The more apparently cinematic of these extremes – option B – actually happened in suburban Detroit last winter, resulting in the death of a teen and a murder conviction for the man who shot her. Option A is the opening scene of The Guest, a film as lithe and seductive as its lethal main character.

David, the stranger at the door, has returned from one of America's wars to visit the family of a dead comrade who made him promise "to check on y'all." Each of the four Petersons sense something fishy about their guest, but not all at the same time. He quickly achieves the military's soft fantasy of winning over hearts and minds. He also starts solving the family's problems for them, while claiming no knowledge of the violent results.

Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett worked together on You're Next (2011), another film about mayhem invading the home. The Guest plays continually on the tension between hospitality and stranger danger, while cueing us from the first moment that the Petersons have no idea what's about to happen to them.

The film is set just before Halloween, like many of the vintage slasher films that are part of The Guest's DNA. Wingard and Barrett have mashed up the genre with tropes from cyborgian horror films – Terminator comes to mind more than once – and from movies driven by paranoia about the military industrial complex. The last element is the weakest. When well-armed heavies arrive in a futile effort to subdue David, the film comes to a standstill while huge automatic weapons spew casings in slow motion. The scene is pure gun porn, and makes sense only when you consider how a story like this (tagline: "be careful who you let in") reinforces the armed-and-ready siege mentality behind that front-porch shooting in Detroit.

But the film's touch is mostly light and clever, with plenty of dark jokes that fly over the Petersons' heads and increase the viewer's complicity with David. Much as they like to toy with established genres, Wingard and Barrett are loyal to the conventions, right down to the "final girl" resolution, tweaked to include her kid brother. The pleasures of The Guest lie mainly in anticipating how the next expected corner will be turned.

The film's biggest surprise is the transformation of Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens from Edwardian swain (Matthew Crawley) to the ripped, drawling, charismatic David. He's the still yet stormy reagent that alters all chemistries in the Peterson home. The terrific ensemble cast includes Maika Monroe as Anna, Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser as her parents, and Canadian newcomer Brendan Meyer as little brother Luke.

Robby Baumgartner's high-contrast cinematography is rich in deep blacks that from the start torque the feeling that bad things are coming. Ditto the eerie synthesizer sounds of Steve Moore's music. Wingard and Barrett are not above using jack-o'-lanterns as cues for dread, and lovingly drive their final chapter through a Halloween funhouse, much the way Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith did with that fairground at the end of Strangers on a Train.

The Guest's final images clear the way for a sequel, and give yet another twist to that perennial riddle about the horrific Other: How can you know anything for sure about people you don't know?

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