Rob Harmon’s Picks 3/17/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE GUEST (dir. Adam Wingard, 2014)

Low-budget genre films — in general — do not get much credit: they are proven money-makers but critics ignore them, audiences look down upon them. As for awards, well, don’t hold your breath.

This is unfortunate because while genre films — horror, science fiction, westerns, gangster, action, martial arts, etc. — have a long history of seeming virtually indistinguishable from one another, some filmmakers, like Edgar G. Ulmer in DETOUR, Don Siegel in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, or John Carpenter in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, have wrought minor miracles tweaking well-worn formulae. Operating well below the radar of society’s taste-makers, the low-budget aesthetic is to strip a film down to the bone. A great low-budget genre film can succeed wildly and in ways which other, more respectable counterparts are unable: all technique, no bombast; a solid reminder of the essence of what makes movies so pleasurable in the first place.

Unfortunately, though, the heyday of the genre film (which lasted well into to the 80’s) seems to have passed us by. Many of the programmatic concepts and stories which once would have found their way onto a grindhouse or drive-in screen have now been co-opted by the Hollywood blockbuster (“Aliens controlling human beings from behind the scenes and making us think that everything is hunky dory? Nah, that’s big budget now; that’s THE MATRIX!”), the straight-to-video market, the made-for-Lifetime movie (teenagers and/or housewives dabbling in sex/drugs/prostitution/murder-for-hire, etc.), and the SciFi Channel movie (humans vs. sharks/gorillas/piranhas/monsters/aliens, etc.). It causes one to wonder: those shabby artistic margins once exploited so sensationally by the likes of Ulmer, Siegel, and Carpenter, what has become of them?

Luckily, though, these types of films are not extinct, if less numerous than before, reminding you just how fun it can be to “check your brain at the door,” as the saying goes, while still having that grey matter stimulated in some wholly unexpected ways.

A story treatment for Adam Wingard’s THE GUEST could probably be printed on the label of a very small tin can. It might go something like this: family living in the heartland of America grieves for their dead son, killed in action oversees; handsome, chiseled stranger (Dan Stevens) shows up at door claiming to be close friend of dead son, just released from duty; handsome, chiseled stranger decides to stay with family for a few days and quickly becomes everyone’s best friend and protector; handsome, chiseled stranger also quickly becomes over-protective and is soon revealed to be a bit of a wackadoodle, the subject of some undisclosed top secret military super-soldier experiment gone awry; people die (lots of them, actually).

The_Guest_DVDTruthfully, it is a bit more complicated than that, but not by much, the story being told from the point-of-view of the family’s plucky daughter (Maika Monroe), who first distrusts, then lusts for said stranger, before she and her picked-upon younger brother must hold on for dear life in a hugely entertaining final set-piece in the local high school, which is decked out for… yup, the annual Halloween party!

THE GUEST is a wholly enjoyable roller-coaster ride of a movie: little or no plot development, lots of momentum. The film, in fact, has a sleek and lean widescreen look that resembles part-Euro art cinema, part-Carpenter’s Halloween. This heritage seems to be underscored, literally, by its astonishingly well-assembled electronic score, at times throbbing and muscular like a killer Teutonic dance beat, at others minimal and eerie like a classic synth-y Carpenter score. The film really should be understood as a musical journey or progression, more than anything else, a series of moods building steadily, one after another, to a destination which is familiar, yet ultimately satisfying.