A little while into the brutal 2014 indie The Guest, we get one of the most viscerally satisfying bully payback scenes in cinematic history. There’s this kid, this meek and quiet and doughy high school kid whose only friends are online. His family’s cool, ultra-capable, mysterious new adult friend shows up at school to pick him up and immediately recognizes that he’s been beaten up. He gets the kid to identify the bullies, then follows them to the sort of mythical movie bar where kids on the high school football team get to drink underage. Once in there, he goads those kids into attacking him, and quickly leaves all of them lying in one big moaning broken heap. It’s awesome.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not awesome. The mysterious friend, one David Collins, is doing all this on behalf of a kid who seems completely terrified by everything that’s happened. He never gets a moment of fuck-with-me-now triumph. Instead, David offers him a whole new set of problems to deal with. There is a whole lot of violence in The Guest, and none of it leads to anything good happening for anyone.
I’m writing about this as an action movie, because it is one. Any movie that prominently features hand grenades and incompetent mercenary squads and Chekovian butterfly knives counts as an action movie. But The Guest is a lot of other things, too. It’s a horror flick, it’s a ridiculously tense and kickass thriller, it’s a finely observed domestic drama. In a few moments, it’s an extremely dark comedy. It’s also a movie about movies. If you want to, you can spend a good long time spotting all the B-movies that The Guest consciously evokes: The Terminator, Halloween, The Stepfather, First Blood, The Hitcher, Universal Soldier. Director Adam Wingard stages an entire climactic scene at a high school’s Halloween dance just so he can go nuts with the ’80s horror-movie lighting and set design. But it never feels like a stitched-together collection of familiar scenes. It’s not a pastiche. Instead, it’s a beautifully nasty little contained story, one that internalizes all these influences and deploys them in great and subtle ways.
It’s probably best to go into The Guest cold, to watch it without any preconceived idea of where it might go. (And you really should watch it; it’s one of the best English-language action movies in years.) But I’ll give a vague outline: A guy shows up on the doorstep of a family that’s lost a son in Afghanistan. The stranger says he served with their son and that he wants to tell them about him. He’s ridiculously handsome and cool and capable and unassuming. He sticks around for a few days and helps all of them, insinuating his way into their lives. But he also stares intently off into nowhere when he’s alone, and you get the general foreboding sense that he is not right. And by the time Lance Reddick, Lieutenant Daniels from The Wire, shows up as a shadowy military contractor, it’s pretty clear that shit is on.
Before The Guest, Wingard directed 2011’s You’re Next, another seemingly simple and low-budget movie that twists itself a whole lot of unexpected directions. This motherfucker knows what he’s doing. This time he keeps you off-balance, playing around with your sympathies. You can understand why the family likes David, because you like David. He does some really cool shit! And yet Wingard slowly and masterfully builds tension. The movie’s music is just amazing: It’s the same sort of bloopy, longing synth pop that made up the Drive soundtrack, except with a slightly heavier goth edge. And when David enters a bar with an eerie metronomic keyboard blaring, it goes a long way to signaling that you should be nervous. Plus, the movie never fills in too much of the backstory: It lets your imagination do the work. You get just enough of the background to give you a holy shit reaction, and you’re never treated like an idiot who can’t connect the dots. That’s a rare and valuable thing.
Dan Stevens, a British actor who apparently caused a big stir when he left the Downton Abbey cast, plays David, and he’s great. People who recognize him from that show generally seem amazed that it’s the same guy—he completely altered himself for this part. He pulls off an aw-shucks American accent without any evident strain, and he projects this unnatural confidence that makes him both magnetic and disquieting. It’s weird that he didn’t jump straight from this into movie-star roles, but maybe more people just need to see him in this.
The one cast member who does look likely to jump into stardom is Maika Monroe, who plays the family’s tough, suspicious daughter and who eventually emerges as the movie’s hero. After The Guest, she played the lead in the much-loved horror movie It Follows, and now she’s about to take over Mae Whitman’s role as the president’s daughter in the Independence Day sequel. She’s great, too—hard and sympathetic at the same time. The whole family is good, really. They give the convincing impression that they’re all dealing with their family tragedy in different ways, drifting apart because they don’t really know how to talk to each other. And even when they make really dumb decisions—and just about all of them make really dumb decisions—it never gets to that movie thing where you’re yelling at the screen and calling them idiots.
Look, I’m being vague as hell because I don’t want to spoil anything. But watch it. Seriously, it’s like an hour and 40 minutes, and it’s the best new movie that’s shown up on Netflix Instant in forever. It’s a perfect little jolt of creepiness, and it has enough shocking moments that I’m worried I’m going to accidentally give some of them away just by talking about it. So just watch it, and then you can struggle with telling people that they should see it.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Conan the Barbarian | The Warriors | Road House | Fist of Legend | Hot Fuzz | Assault on Precinct 13 | Payback | The Good, the Bad, the Weird | The Professional | Supercop | The Man With the Iron Fists 2 | Flash Point | The Way of the Dragon | Skyfall | Chocolate | Dirty Mary Crazy Larry | Iron Monkey | XXX | Headhunters | The Running Man | Project A | Homefront | Drug War | Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone|Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine |Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master