The emergent horror tyro Adam Wingard is undergoing what we might call gentrification via genre. His grungy, mumblecore-influenced breakthrough feature A Horrible Way to Die only arrived belatedly over here on DVD, and if he then managed to sneak into the multiplexes with last year's follow-up You're Next, that film proved just a little too taut and nasty for general acceptance. Wingard now lands his widest release to date with The Guest, a thriller that could even be marketed to Radio 4-listening bluestockings because of the presence of Downton Abbey's reputedly dreamy Dan Stevens in the lead role. From down-and-out to Downton in three movies: that's quite the trajectory for Wingard, and the new film has just enough going on in its frames to sustain the feeling he's a director who still has places to go.
Stevens here plays David, who one afternoon shows up on the doorstep of the all-American Peterson family, claiming to be a soldier who served in the Gulf with the family's eldest boy. Before you can say "Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Theorem", he's insinuated himself into their lives, becoming a replacement son for grieving mother Laura (Sheila Kelley), a beer-and-football buddy for stressed salaryman pop Spencer (Leland Orser), a protector to bullied son Luke (Brendan Mayer) and an object of confused lust for daughter Anna (Maika Monroe, the closest the movies have yet found to a workable Brittany Murphy replacement). The new arrival is plainly too good to be true; the questions that arise concern whose side David is on, and what it is he might still be fighting for.
What Wingard had from the off - what he picked up from those 1970s genre exercises he evidently schooled himself in - was that rare and precious commodity of patience, a willingness to let events play out without recourse to cheap thrills; it's a choice that allows him to build up those characters we'll eventually see running around in abject panic, and to foster audience uncertainty as to what it is we're actually watching. A Horrible Way to Die staked its all on this long game, and appeared for much of its duration to be setting out a bruised, lived-in romance rather than anything so piercingly obvious as another slasher movie; The Guest, like You're Next before it, sets up expectations of social satire - Anna aside, the Petersons seem uncommonly credulous - only for a location shift some forty minutes in to flag how Wingard is keen to fold in a few more overtly commercial influences.
If you're prepared to go along with what follows as metafiction, then The Guest functions very capably as a night out. Wingard has a gift for staging blackly comic violence, and Stevens' superficial charms - that softly purring voice, those bright blue eyes - are such that your mum or gran might well respond favourably, though the actor is equally alert to the ironies lurking around the corners of Wingard and Simon Barrett's script: David isn't quite as assured as he first seems, not so much in control as in too deep, which is why everything will end in tears. Still, squeamish viewers need not worry unduly: long before the fairground house of horrors finale, Steve Moore's faux-Eighties electronic score has wrapped the entire, 15-rated package in comforting movie quotation marks. We're in safe hands throughout.
Clearly, the multiplex is gaining another flexible narrative technician from the indie sector, although we might pause for a moment to question what Wingard might be losing in this transition: nothing in this rollercoaster-crowdpleaser is allowed to be as haunting as the genuinely desolate vision of ruined lives worked up in A Horrible Way to Die - or even, really, as creepy as all the maskwork in You're Next. Wingard now evidently knows how to get an audience in and out and possibly off: a typical response to The Guest may well be that of the young woman sitting behind me at the public screening I attended, who kept up a steady stream of amused "ooh!"s and "ahh!"s throughout. Wingard gives us our money's worth, certainly. But has he learned to get - and does he now have any interest in getting - any of the tougher stuff to play?
The Guest is now playing in cinemas nationwide.