‘The Guest’ filmmakers Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett going beyond horror

Director Adam Wingard, second from right at top, and screenwriter Simon Barrett, right, with actors from “The Guest” at the Sundance Film Festival.
Director Adam Wingard, second from right at top, and screenwriter Simon Barrett, right, with actors from “The Guest” at the Sundance Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A handsome, polite young man arrives at the door of a modest, middle-class family in New Mexico saying he served in the military with their recently deceased son. They invite him in. Wouldn’t anyone?

In “The Guest,” such a seemingly innocuous setup sets off a startling chain of events that involves much mayhem, a top-secret military program and a finale set amid an elaborate high school Halloween haunted-house maze.

The movie is a knowing and affectionate throwback to the lurid, post-”Terminator” action movies of the late 1980s and early ‘90s and the latest collaboration from director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. “The Guest” opens Wednesday in Los Angeles before expanding nationally on Oct. 3.


“It’s the opposite of Michael Myers,” said Wingard, referring to the legendary boogeyman villain of the “Halloween” series. “He’s handsome, he’s nice and he’s right in your house.”

Things take a few beats to get weird, and even then for a time it seems that the unexpected visitor might be a net positive for the family. He helps the daughter (Maika Monroe) with boyfriend troubles, the teenage son (Brendan Meyer) with bullies at school, Mom (Sheila Kelley) with her grief over her older son and in his own way assists Dad (Leland Orser) at work. Once he displays a violent side, and the family discovers he was part of a private, government-funded program to create superhuman soldiers, the new friend seems less a helping hand and more an imminent threat.

Such a role required someone who could toggle between innocently charming and more darkly villainous. Dan Stevens, best known for a hyper-romantic role on TV’s “Downton Abbey,” was just right. “You needed someone where you’d believe a family would invite him to stay with them,” said Barrett.

The film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and had its Los Angeles premiere this summer as part of the Sundance Next Fest, where Wingard and Barrett submitted to affectionate needling by “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn in an outrageous and lively question-answer session. “The Guest” was also just the closing-night selection of the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film marks both a continuity and a new direction in the collaboration between Wingard and Barrett. They make movies that are film-fan savvy, self-aware in a modern way and yet still genuine all on their own. Following the rollicking midnight world premiere of their “You’re Next” as part of the 2011 Toronto fest, the film was caught up in a corporate reshuffling between distributors and sat waiting for release for nearly two years. Rather than sit around and fret, they were shooting “The Guest” in New Mexico by the time “You’re Next” finally came out last year. Continuing to work with producers Keith Calder and Jessica Wu, Wingard and Barrett’ are now moving beyond horror.

“I think now everything changed because of ‘The Guest,’” said Wingard, 31, who was born in Tennessee but has lived for a few years in Los Angeles. “Now we’re seen as real filmmakers, where before we were seen strictly as horror filmmakers. And I don’t think even we understood the extent of that perception going around when ‘You’re Next’ was doing its thing.”


And though “You’re Next” did respectable business, bringing in more than $18 million — not bad for a movie made for less than $1 million — it wasn’t quite the smash that some expected.

“We just want to make as many movies as we can,” said Barrett, 35, who also lives in Los Angeles, “and it already had been a success for us in that we were able to make another film.”

The pair discusses ideas for stories, frequently with a number of ideas floating between them, until Barrett heads off to work on a first draft on his own, which he will then show to Wingard for notes and adjustments. Sometimes Wingard will send Barrett music along the way to suggest tone — “It really will be, are you writing a movie I can put this song in?” Wingard said.

Wingard and Barrett first worked together on 2010’s “A Horrible Way to Die,” their inversion of the serial-killer movie, and “You’re Next” combined the family reunion film and home invasion thriller. With its broad-ranging references, from “The Terminator” to “Halloween,” and a neon-rimmed throwback vibe, “The Guest” is something different.

“From a genre standpoint, it’s just not a horror movie. It is every other genre of movie,” said Barrett.

Rather, “The Guest” draws from a lifetime of anonymous late-night cable thrillers to create something of a super-soldier of a movie, pulling from bad movies in service of creating a good one. The LA Weekly said it “delivers on everything ... a transcendent comic chiller” while Empire magazine encouraged audiences to “tune into its strange frequency.’


“It’s even less of a specific genre film but more of an all-encompassing nostalgia trip that takes its subject utterly seriously. It’s not like a parody,” said Wingard. “When ‘You’re Next’ came out, there was a weird divide among horror fans where a lot of people didn’t know if we were joking or if the jokes in the film were unintentional. They were clearly intentional, but the good thing about ‘The Guest’ now is that it is kind of clearly saying, ‘Obviously we’re joking.’ ”

“It’s important to us to take our characters really seriously,” noted Barrett. “It’s really just about treating the characters as real people and seeing what they would do. Simply put, if I can’t explain something to Adam, he can’t explain it to an actor.”

Earlier this week it was reported by the Wrap that Wingard and Barrett would be working on a remake of Kim Jee-woon’s 2010 South Korean revenge thriller “I Saw the Devil.” (Wingard, Barrett and Calder all confirmed the news via Twitter, while noting it’s still very early in the process.) So it seems as if their plan to keep the ball rolling in new directions is still in motion.