Downton to downright nasty: Dan Stevens’s dramatic transformation

In The Guest, Stevens plays David, a stranger who pitches up on the doorstep of a grieving American family. He claims to be a friend of their eldest son, who died in combat in Afghanistan but it’s clear to the viewer he’s bad news. 

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The Guest (15)
dir: Adam Wingard

The PR spiel for The Guest, a new thriller, promises: “Dan Stevens as you’ve never seen him before!” This leaves the field open for those of us who have only ever regarded this British actor as simpering and insipid. But perhaps it wasn’t just his Downton Abbey character who died in a car crash several Christmases ago. From this distance, it appears that Stevens was also killing off his old image, foppish flyaway hairdo and all.

In The Guest, he plays David, a stranger who pitches up on the doorstep of a grieving American family. He claims to be a friend of their eldest son, who died in combat in Afghanistan. Even if we had not been tipped off by the music, with its plunging synthesiser chords straight from the John Carpenter school of horror, we would know by his cultivated smarm and his smirking way of saying “Yes, ma’am” that he was bad news. I’m not convinced that Stevens is entirely the right man for this job – his synthetic apple-pie Americana has a strong whiff of Mr Kipling about it. But it would be churlish to begrudge an actor who was clearly relishing the journey beyond his comfort zone.

It helps that the director Adam Wingard and the writer Simon Barrett, whose previous collaboration, You’re Next, showed them to be promising apprentices in horror, know how to whoop it up. That much is clear when David addresses gravely the late soldier’s mother, Laura (Sheila Kelley). The scene would be solemn if it weren’t for all the gap-toothed Hallowe’en pumpkins grinning mockingly in the background. They know, as Laura will discover, that this visitor is more trick than treat.

David sets about identifying the vulnerabilities of each family member. The father, Spencer (Leland Orser), was passed over for a promotion at work. The younger son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), is being picked on at school. The sister, Anna (Maika Monroe), is drinking, taking drugs and dating an unsuitable man. David presents a solution in each case, though it’s remiss of the film-makers to have overlooked his relationship with Laura, which could have been fruitfully Freudian. When he accompanies her to a disciplinary meeting at Luke’s school, the necessary scenes explaining how he appointed himself proxy co-parent are conspicuous by their absence.

The film generally fails to map out the psychological groundwork that would have made David’s campaign disturbing rather than merely perverse. The 1987 version of The Stepfather, a movie about a man who attaches himself compulsively to fatherless families, only to slaughter their members when domestic perfection proves unattainable, is a perfect example of how to balance fun with frights; it takes its time building plausibility so that something is at stake when the body count starts rising. The Guest is too eager to get to the next efficiently executed set piece – a bar-room brawl with school bullies or a shoot-out among the family whites drying on the washing line.

Barrett’s script might have been more ele­gant, too, in its distribution of exposition. The reason for David’s behaviour, when it comes, is outlandish. Suspension of disbelief is all very well but an audience shouldn’t be expected to do this much heavy lifting so late in the day. It’s also a good idea not to have more than one scene in which a character answers the phone, looks shocked and says something along the lines of: “What? You mean they’ve found the body/the gun that killed him/the vital evidence?” (I counted three such examples here.)

There is a tradition of films about transgressive outsiders transforming the households into which they are invited, from Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning in 1932 to its 1986 remake, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, by way of Pasolini’s Theorem (1968). The Guest is not in that class but it has enough bright spots to make it zing. Among them is the masterful climax at a high school Hallowe’en ball, where the set is elaborate enough to put the London Dungeon to shame. The movie also heralds the arrival of an authentically captivating talent: not Stevens but Maika Monroe. Along with her droll mouth and those unimpressed, Bette Davis eyes, her surname provides warning that there is a new movie star in our midst. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood