There has been a reasonable history of Mysterious Stranger films. The most influential was Pier Paolo Pasolinis Teorema (1968) with Terence Stamp as an enigmatic visitor who seduces his way through a bourgeois household and leaves everybody changed in miraculous ways. There have been others in similar veins with the likes of Brimstone and Treacle (1982), That Eye, The Sky (1994), Visitor Q (2001), Outside Satan (2011) and Borgman (2013). That said, The Guest resembles more one of Pierre Davids psycho-thrillers The Nurse (1997), The Perfect Nanny (2000), The Perfect Tenant (2000), The Stepdaughter (2000), The Perfect Wife (2001) and numerous others which all feature a charming and friendly stranger inveigling their way into a household and then killing the members of the family. As with all of these films, whether fantastical in nature or mundane psycho-thrillers, the Mysterious Stranger seems at the outset wondrous and charming, changing peoples lives, before being revealed as something malevolent (or in the more fantastical versions as someone who is combination of angel and devil).
Adam Wingard has emerged as a promisingly talented director in the last few years. My complaint with the body of work he has turned out so far might be that his choices of scripts make for films that are formulaic in all every regards, where it becomes his directorial style that elevates the material. With a hack director, the material here could have been an utterly forgettable formula thriller destined for cable tv slots. Nevertheless, Wingard invests it with something more and provides a reasonable degree of tension. Still, you keep suspecting that if Wingard came armed with a really good script, he would be capable of producing exceptional. (You also have to admit he does a great job of prominently featuring Dutch darkwave band Clan of Xymox on the soundtrack).
The film gets its best moments out of Dan Stevens acting charming and ingratiating his way into the family with his perfectly mannered, old-fashioned politeness. The best scenes are those where Wingard knowingly plays into Stevens handsome smoothness and then turns this on its head by showing either Stevens going cold or turning unexpectedly violent. The scene with he in the bar turning on Brendan Meyers bullies by ordering each of them a Manhattan is side-splitting. Stevens performs perfectly in the part in fact, he does so well at being a charmingly polite southern boy that you would never guess that Stevens was a British actor whose work is probably better known for costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility (2008) and tvs Downton Abbey (2010-5) he even turned up as Arthur Holmwood in the BBC Dracula (2006).
Less effective is where The Guest turns from a psycho-thriller about a sinister stranger and opens up with a left field element about programmed soldiers. It is a turn that seems to take The Guest from being a psychological thriller in which a familys weaknesses are preyed upon into the realm of merely an action film. Certainly, the action element is something that Adam Wingard delivers perfectly acceptably it is just that by the time of a standard slasher movie climax with Dan Stevens stalking the surviving members of the family around a burning Halloween maze, you feel like the film has slipped into something where you know everything that is going to happen. There is never enough to the script in terms of originality of ideas to deliver any surprises. Even the supersoldier elements are delivered in a way that are given only the minimum number of explanations about what is happening necessary to drive the plot.
(Nominee for Best Actor (Dan Stevens) and Best Supporting Actress (Sheila Kelley) at this sites Best of 2014 Awards).