‘The Guest’ 101: A Primer on the ’80s-Action-Horror-Influenced Thrill Ride
On October 10, The Guest goes into wide release. An action/horror ’80s throwback from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the film is the latest in the pair’s lap around variations of the horror film (with two entries in the V/H/S found-footage series, 2010’s serial killer character piece A Horrible Way to Die, and the stellar meta-slasher You’re Next). Wingard and Barrett (along with many reviews) have described the film as “Halloween meets Terminator,” inspired after Wingard watched a double feature of the two films. With those two films in mind, and with The Guest on its way to being one of the cult favorites of the year, here’s a look at some of the other films that inspired the ’80s-flavored action-thriller, via some of the classic tropes found in the movie.
The Man in the House May Not Be What He Seems
The subgenre of thriller that The Guest fits snuggest into is the most obvious from its title.
The mysterious stranger genre goes all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, a restaging of Jack the Ripper as a wrong-man situation. Hitchcock would perfect the template in Shadow of a Doubt. Cowritten by Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder, Shadow is the definitive small-town horror tale. Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, who is in town to spend time with his family. He is a respected, widely loved member of the community — charming, sharp, and beloved by his niece, who also happens to go by the name Charlie.
Uncle Charlie actually murders young widows, and has been doing so for some time. Shadow of a Doubt plays like a seduction of the niece, not by Uncle Charlie, but by the moral ambiguity he represents. The small-town, everyone-in-everyone’s-business environment forces both Charlies to keep everything quiet, until his misogynistic compulsion eventually pushes her to act against him. The film deepens many of Hitchcock’s core themes: what people hide behind their presentation of self, duality, mirroring, sexual dysfunction visited on characters from their families, and murder.
Shadow of a Doubt would serve as a model for small-town horror films like Halloween and Blue Velvet. More artistically minded entries in this subgenre include Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema and Takashi Miike’s gonzo near-remake of that film, Visitor Q.
The Stepfather, directed by Joseph Ruben and featuring future Lost star Terry O’Quinn, is another variation on this same approach. Cowritten by crime novelist Donald Westlake, the film, like Shadow of a Doubt, stands out because of its literary pedigree. The Stepfather is a product of its time, coming at the flagging end of the slasher-film boom. In an earlier era, it may have just been a traditional thriller, but it is ham-handed in its attempt to plug into a kill-to-end-every-act structure.
And Now, a Bar Fight
The Guest has a lot going for it, not least of which is an entry into the bar fight pantheon. There is a rich tradition of these scenes, and they serve a very specific purpose. What better way to show Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris’s brutality than by having them decimate a room full of mean drunks? It seems like a joke, but these scenes can really crystallize a character. Thinks Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. Or just think of every fight in Road House.
This is also a great opportunity to show that a character has superhuman or near-superhuman powers. The 1987 vampire film Near Dark, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is the platonic ideal. A vampire gang takes its newbie recruit into the redneckiest bar ever to get him his first kill. Eventually, Bill Paxton yells, “Well, I’ll be goddamned. Shit-kicker heaven!” And, well …
Everything in the scene is swinging dicks and one-liners, but it forwards character and situation clearly and concisely. Less successful, in terms of narrative development through eating- or drinking-establishment scrap, is the fight in Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier. Jean-Claude Van Damme is either a reanimated Vietnam soldier turned superhuman, or a clone of one. When he can’t pay for any of the 10 meals he’s just ordered at a diner, he gets into a brawl. This is the “fish out of water who doesn’t know his own strength” kind of fight. It’s just not as interesting as dangerous people knowing what they’re capable of.
Army of One
The Guest is kind of a super-soldier story. It’s a template that’s become in vogue with the success of the Bourne films and some comic book movies. Like the old assassin who’s put the life behind him, the super-soldier is about the potential for violence in everyday situations. The original Universal Soldier isn’t much interested in any of the ideas it blindly grabs for — cultural hangover from Vietnam, dehumanization of the military, cool sci-fi soldier stuff from RoboCop and Aliens — and it’s also not as funny as other Emmerich movies.
In 2009, Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren returned for the direct-to-video Universal Soldier: Regeneration, directed by MMA documentarian John Hyams. He took a script that isn’t far from the original and made one of the best action movies of the past decade.
The Final Girl
There is an arc of slasher films that goes all the way back to Psycho, through the Italian Giallo films of Mario Bava and ’70s American classics like Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Black Christmas. The Guest is on this arc, but John Carpenter’s Halloween was where the model is perfected; it’s where everything — pacing, the psychological and thematic underpinnings, shifting POVs — transforms.
It could be argued that the Final Girl idea — put forth in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws — in which the audience’s identification with the killer is transferred to the last standing victim in a complex manipulation of perspective, is Carpenter’s contribution to the genre.
Screenwriters Carpenter and Debra Hill mirror Michael Myers’s violent response to arousal to Laurie Strode’s reticence and ill ease when having to deal with sex — what sets her apart is what attracts him to her. This is an idea many of the film’s imitators took as a repressive morality. In those films, drugs and sex get you killed. Myers — his impossibly calm posture, the blank staring mask (which can barely be recognized as a mask for the first two-thirds of the film) — was conceived of as a blend of realistic man with a knife and a supernatural villain. The scary thing is not his way to go unseen in daylight or melt into the shadows, it’s how he just won’t go down. The sequels dwell on Myers’s unkillable nature, losing interest in the unfeeling gaze that goes with it. Laurie is what makes Halloween special, not Michael. The story is about a normal girl in extraordinary circumstances. Her survival is the story. It’s something horror films, and really all triumphant hero narratives, have forgotten. Surviving is a victory.
Why Won’t You Die?
The films that seemed to “get” Halloween the most were works that have a foot outside of the horror genre: Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Terminator. Alien picks up on Carpenter’s approach to letting a major character play background for much of the film, only to finally act. Scott pretty much transplants/pays homage/rips off the scene in Halloween when Laurie hides in the closet when he depicts Ripley in the escape ship.
The Terminator is Halloween on a molecular level — normal girl thrust into a kill-or-be-killed situation, hunted by an unkillable, emotionless monster who sees everything, and hampered by worthless authority figures who can’t stop him. Laurie Strode, Ellen Ripley, and Sarah Connor are more interesting female protagonists than most of what we see onscreen today. Cameron, like Carpenter and Scott, wasn’t interested in the patronizing bullshit of “women can’t be action heroes.” These aren’t ridiculous caricatures or stereotypes.
The Terminator, released in 1984, is a marvel: low budget, huge ambitions, fantastic cast (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton), Stan Winston special effects that still hold up, and a brilliant script. Every line is perfect, and all the exposition is buried in the most visceral action. You want to talk about a low budget forcing a director to be more creative? Watch The Terminator.
The Terminator, like Halloween, got franchised, but let’s be clear: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation aren’t movies that anyone should take seriously. The Sarah Connor Chronicles is pretty great post-X-Files TV, and there’s a new film coming with Schwarzenegger, but the only Terminators are the James Cameron Terminators.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an inversion of the original film, Schwarzenegger is the protector of tween John Connor, and Linda Hamilton is the dangerous murderer who needs to be kept in check. Cameron also goes from the Roger Corman school of no budget and big ideas to the blockbuster scale. Unlike so many directors put in the same position, Cameron is up to the challenge.
The film has elements of Halloween embedded in its DNA (the scene where Connor’s stepmother is on the phone while the dog freaks out about the killer in the house is right from Nancy Loomis in Halloween), but is more interested in playing up against every big action film to appear between 1984 and 1991.
T2 has the finest superhuman-fights-rednecks-in-a-bar scene, with a naked Schwarzenegger walking in and telling the biggest man there (the same guy who fights Paxton and Van Damme) he wants his clothes and his bike, pitching him into the kitchen and onto the flattop grill. It’s a nasty, scary fight that contrasts with the softening of the Terminator’s character later in the film.
The audience is never allowed to forget how deadly he is, but just to be sure, he’s set on traditional action movie punching bags right away. The centerpiece of the film takes the “Welcome to the party, pal” scene in Die Hard and expands it to a symphony of Arnold kneecapping cops. Cameron is vindictive against police in these two films. In T2, the police station bloodbath of the first film is the core of its worldview. Robert Patrick’s walking nightmare of a shape-shifting T-1000 chooses to be a workaday cop, not an Arnold-shaped battering ram. T2 doesn’t fail in the way that Halloween II does; it doesn’t reset the Sarah of the end of the first film to play the same story over again. Like the Myers-Strode mirroring, Sarah becomes too much like the Terminator, and she has to find her vulnerability again to kill it.