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It's often really fun and exciting—for both filmmakers and filmgoers—to partake in a film that is a pastiche or send-up, of sorts, of a film of a specific genre and era. Every once in a while we get a contemporary film that has a clear love of 30s and 40s screwball comedies, battle-of-the-sexes style, or we see a film that harks back to those wacky sci-fi B-movies from the 50s that proliferated at the dawn of the nuclear era. Equally popular are send-ups of 80s films of all stripes - that decade displayed some pretty pointed aesthetic tastes, in not only various film genres but music and fashion as well. So it's hardly uncommon to see a film that apes, say, an 80s thriller like The Terminator or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992, but it fits nicely within the paradigm all the same). But a film that acknowledges the influence of that cinematic genre whilst simultaneously observing the influences on those influences is a much smarter—and tougher—thing to do.
A film that acknowledges the influence of that cinematic genre whilst simultaneously observing the influences on those influences is a much smarter—and tougher—thing to do.
Adam Wingard's The Guest is one such film, an extremely well-executed modern-day thriller about an ex-soldier who moves in with the family of one of the men from his unit, a friend who died. He befriends the dead soldier's father and mother, and protects and advises his younger brother and sister, with a little bit of sexual tension thrown in between the soldier and the sister. Right from the start - the opening title card features a cheesy 80s font with a fast graphic enlargement of the title treatment, and some extremely ominous music, to boot—it's clear that Wingard is going to have some fun with the film, taking it to campy 80s B-movie thriller territory.
But what's exceptional about the film is that—unlike most filmmakers who engage in such pastiche— Wingard is interested in the influences on those 80s films as much as he's interested in those 80s films, themselves. Most filmmakers engaging in this kind of homage riff endlessly on the stuff of their influences—whip-pans and fast zooms with the camera, overly ominous synth score, flashing neon lights, and so on. The Guest indulges in some of these tropes, but the clearest influence on the film, for me, wasn't even from the 80s.
The big influence on The Guest, as far as I could see, is Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt—one of the master's very best films.
While Wingard clearly has great respect for those 80s thrillers whose aesthetics he's pillaged to some degree, the big influence on The Guest, as far as I could see, is Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt—one of the master's very best films, about a wayward uncle (played with a sure-footed combination of charm and iciness, the same combination Dan Stevens brings to his lead role in The Guest) who comes to stay with his sister and her family. The uncle is the favorite of everyone in the household, until his niece—who shares his name—begins to suspect that something is not right regarding her uncle's identity.
Refusing to get caught up in merely the 80s influences, Wingard went deeper and studied other films regarding their narrative structures, which makes sense - if your film is influenced by 80s thrillers, there's no reason to not go back and still study the masterful works that influence those films you want to deliberately reference. While there are plenty of great 80s thrillers, none approach the sublime execution of Shadow of a Doubt, which—aided, no doubt, by a script from none other than Thornton Wilder—really transcended the typical Hitchcock outing and became a masterpiece. The lesson is a clear one, if one that's sadly all too often unrecognized - it's great to have fun with your influences, but make sure you reference their influences as well.