The Guest

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I went into “The Guest” knowing almost nothing about it. I was expecting something very artistic and the kind of movie Hollywood studios wouldn’t have the guts to finance these days, but what I got instead was the kind of thriller similar to those from the 1980’s like “The Hitcher.” I kept wondering why the Sundance Next Festival would allow something so formulaic to play at this festival, but when the filmmakers came out after a screening to talk about “The Guest,” it then became clear it was actually meant to be an homage to those thrillers we all grew up on. As a result, I quickly saw the movie in a different light.

But even before this revelation, I had to admit “The Guest” is a thriller which packs a mighty punch and left me on the edge of my seat throughout. It grabs you by the throat and holds you tightly within its grasp, and a lot of that is due to the infinitely charismatic performance by Dan Stevens who portrays the guest of the movie’s title.

“The Guest” starts off with an introduction to the Peterson family who are still grieving over the loss of Caleb who was killed in Afghanistan. Then a man knocks at their door and politely introduces himself as David (Dan Stevens), a friend of Caleb’s from the military, and he is here to fulfill a promise to his fallen comrade. David tells Laura (Sheila Kelley) and her husband Spencer (Leland Orser) he has no wish to overstay his welcome, but they become insistent he stay at their house to where he quickly becomes the best houseguest anyone could ever hope to have as he helps out wherever and whenever he can. But just as in life, we can’t help but think no one can be this nice without being somewhat psychotic.

Some of “The Guest’s” best moments come when David looks out for the Peterson children, Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer). Luke is having some major problems at school as he is the target of bullies who beat him up at any given opportunity. Now I have seen this scenario played out in many movies, and it used to tug at my emotions in a very strong way. But watching it in “The Guest” gave me that primal beat up the bullies feeling I haven’t felt in the longest time. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see David is going to give these jerks a taste of their own medicine, and watching him do so is a perverse thrill.

Anna is less quick to warm up to David even after he goes out of his way to get a keg of beer for her high school friends. From the start she is suspicious of who he really is, and those suspicions are confirmed when a number of strange events start happening around town. Of course, her dad can’t see him doing anything bad and chides his daughter for even thinking such a thing. After all these years, teenagers are still forced to deal with their parents’ hypocrisy, and that’s even with actors like Leland Orser playing the father.

As you can see, “The Guest” travels down the road of familiar genre conventions and delivers them to the audience in a way which feels both potent and fresh. The violence in the movie is more brutal than in others I’ve seen recently, and there are several scenes which shocked me I haven’t been shocked in a while. No character is on safe ground here, and anyone is expendable in a way those actors in “The Expendables” movies ever are. At the same time, the movie has a sharp sense of humor which shows just how much fun its filmmakers were having with the material.

“The Guest” comes to us from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the same two who gave us “You’re Next.” I came out of this movie wondering if they had as much playing around with the slasher genre in “You’re Next” as they did with the thriller genre here. Having interviewed them both the following day for the website We Got This Covered, I can tell you they absolutely did as they talked about combining elements from “The Terminator” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” to make this movie a reality.

Furthermore, “The Guest” comes equipped with a terrific electronic score courtesy of Steve Moore which recalls the great 80’s electronic film scores like Mark Isham’s “The Hitcher” and the “Halloween” scores of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, particularly the one they did for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” Anyone who knows me best knows how much of a sucker I am for this kind of movie music, and I was digging’ Moore’s score right from the first note as it adds the ominous atmosphere we will be venturing through when David makes his entrance into town.

Seriously, this movie really does belong to Stevens who is best known for playing Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” the TV show everyone seems to be watching except me. He exudes endless charisma and makes you believe how lethal David can be when you look right into those beautifully steely eyes of his. I’m not kidding when I say he has a stare which can cut through you with a laser from a mile away. Stevens also infuses a number of his scenes with a twisted sense of humor, and this is especially the case when he coolly manipulates Luke’s principal to where he realizes suspending this young man from school might actually be hazardous to his health.

“The Guest” falters a little towards the end as the filmmakers get too enamored of the foolishness of their character’s decisions. It also has one of those horror movie endings which imply how evil can never die, and it feels a little soft compared to what we have seen in other films of its ilk. At the same time, it could mean that Wingard and Barrett will reteam for “The Guest 2,” and it would be fun to see how they would play around with the conventions of a sequel.

Seriously, “No Good Deed” could only dream of being as thrilling as this movie, and it starred Idris Elba for crying out loud. “The Guest” gleefully plays around with all the things we remember from the ultra-violent movies from our past, and I found myself enjoying it a lot even as things got increasingly nasty. Just when I thought I knew how this movie would play out, it quickly shifted gears and took me for a loop.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to buy this movie’s soundtrack.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Here Comes The New ‘Blair Witch,’ Same As The Old ‘Blair Witch’

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While watching “Blair Witch,” I kept hearing these lines of dialogue between Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” in my head:

“Don’t worry, I’m not making the same mistakes again.”

“No, you’re making all new ones.”

This particular “Blair Witch” movie came out of nowhere as it was filmed in secret under the title “The Woods,” but over this past summer it was revealed to actually be a direct sequel to “The Blair Witch Project.” With a couple of talented filmmakers at the helm and a cast of unknown actors in front of the camera(s), this third “Blair Witch” movie showed a lot of promise as the memories of watching the original all those years ago remain very vivid to me. But what we end up with here has me paraphrasing the lyrics of a song by The Who: Here comes the new Blair Witch, same as the old Blair Witch.

The movie opens up on James Donoghue (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather Donoghue, viewing some grainy footage which leads him to believe his sister might still be alive. As a result, he forms an expedition to venture into the Black Hills woods in Burkittsville, Maryland to search for her, and he is joined by Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez), an aspiring film student who wants to make a documentary on James’ search, and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). Also along for the ride are Talia (Valorie Curry) and Lane (Wes Robinson), local residents responsible for uploading the grainy footage James watched and who have forever been interested in the legend of the Blair Witch as they do not live far from the events of the original movie.

Once these characters leave their cars behind, we are pretty confident they will never be seen again. Still, we are intrigued at the possibility of James meeting up with Heather as her body, nor Michael’s or Joshua’s, was never found. As expected, this expedition starts with everyone having fun by the campfire, but we all know what will happen from there. Once again, Goldblum’s dialogue from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” was playing loudly in my head:

“Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.”

If there’s anything different about this “Blair Witch” movie, it is the technology. Whereas the trio from the original had video and film cameras at their disposal, these characters have GPS, walkie talkies, digital and DAT cameras, cell phones and a drone which can give them a wider view of the woods. But of course, they are in an area where their cell phones don’t get very good, if any, reception. As for the rest of their gear, it will only do them so much good as they venture deeper into the woods. I mean, we all know what curiosity did to the cat, right?

The beauty of “The Blair Witch Project” was that it never felt like a movie. Instead, it felt more like a unique experience we were not used to having. We were there in the woods with the characters as their situation became increasingly perilous and more terrifying as time went on. Unlike most horror movies, we were not inflicted with cheap scares every five minutes. We were creeped out by the ambiguity of the situation as our imagination ran riot over the things we could not see. This is not to mention the movie’s brilliant marketing campaign which included the fake documentary “Curse of the Blair Witch” and missing photos of the three filmmakers posted at theaters. I’m surprised the studio didn’t put their faces on milk cartons as well.

But “Blair Witch” is unable to match the original’s “you are there” feeling, and I could not escape the fact that I was watching a horror movie. Furthermore, it was a weak horror movie which takes us down a road we have traveled far too often. This time the filmmakers resort to jump scares, and only a few of them work. Also, the characters here are stereotypical ones we usually expect to see in movies like these, and they are none too bright to put it mildly. Then again, horror movies usually thrive on stupid characters because otherwise nothing interesting would ever happen. One character pleads for everyone to head back home, but no one is about to. Just as when Jon Voight suggested to Burt Reynolds in “Deliverance” that they go back home and play golf, we are presented with good advice which is not taken.

After a time, it felt like I was watching a mashup of a “Blair Witch” and a “Paranormal Activity” movie as the soundtrack gets overtaken by dark ominous sound and tents start flying up in the air which has our intrepid characters running for their lives while filming the action any which way they can. I mean heaven forbid they don’t get anything on camera because otherwise there would be no movie.

Let’s face it folks, the found footage genre has long since been beaten to death. It thrived for a time after “The Blair Witch Project,” and it was reignited to very terrifying effect with “Paranormal Activity” and a few of its sequel. But like anything Hollywood gets its hands on, it has been beaten to death to where we are left with diminishing returns in the form of “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” and “The Hollows.” There’s nothing new to be found in this genre with “Blair Witch.” Nothing.

When Artisan Entertainment, which later became Lionsgate, decided to make “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” they hired “Paradise Lost” director Joe Berlinger to co-write and direct it. What resulted was a mess of a movie with bad acting and a poorly conceived story. Either that, or Artisan kept messing around with the movie and recut it behind Berlinger’s back as he has constantly accused them of doing.

This time around, they hired Adam Wingard to direct and Simon Barrett to write this movie, and this had me believing audiences were in for a treat. This is the same duo who gave us the black comedy slasher “You’re Next” and the highly underrated action thriller “The Guest.” Both movies show how familiar they were with the genres they cheerfully exploited, and they succeeded in bringing a freshness to those genres which appeared to have long since reached their peak. With them behind the camera(s) for “Blair Witch,” I felt they could bring something unique and fresh to the found footage genre, but even they can’t help but fall back on tried and true tricks, many of which we can see coming from a mile away.

For what it’s worth, Wingard and Barrett do give us a thrilling climax as the characters run through that creepy house we remember from the original, and we keep guessing as to how long they can last before they are pulled away with only their cameras left behind, recording the floor from an obtuse angle. But this sequence is not enough to save the movie, and what we are left with is, if you’ll excuse the expression, the same old shit.

The directors of the original, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, had often talked about doing a prequel which would show how the legend of the Blair Witch came about. That would be an interesting movie to see. Or perhaps we could get one where we see things from the point of view of the Blair Witch herself as she toys with the foolish humans by scaring them silly before eventually doing them in. One thing is for sure; unlike Donald Trump supporters, she does not discriminate.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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