As soon as the title card interrupts an otherwise calm beginning, it’s clear that this film is going to be absolutely bonkers. More importantly, it’s going to be so much fun to watch. It delivers on that first impression and more, never letting up in its sense of genre-bending glee and always doubling down on its extremes while maintaining a level head aesthetic tension. This is a film that puts a wicked grin on the audience, similar to the wicked grin its mysterious central character sports.
The plot finds a soldier named David (Dan Stevens) appearing at the doorstep of a family and claims he was good friends with their son who died in action. They welcome him in as the whole family warms to him, but as strange murders occur across town the daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) begins to suspect that not is all it seems with David.
Dan Stevens gives the type of performance that gives you a big smile throughout the film. His performance in a word: control. Stevens is doing so many things at once – he manages to be eerily charming, strangely polite, coldly threatening and absolutely seductive in every mannerism and posture. It’s both effortless and calculative all at once. David is a character that proves to be completely irresistible to event the most suspect of those around him, and so in turn is Stevens. You spend the whole film trying to figure out what’s going on behind those eyes, and it’s a delight to watch how easily he can shift from unimposing to life threatening in a single expression.
The rest of the cast isn’t as exciting as Stevens, but they’re not necessarily required to be in a film like this. They adopt the stereotypes of their characters admirably, with Maika Monroe embodying a borderline heroine similar to Laurie Strode in Carpenter’s Halloween (one of multiple loving allusions to Carpenter). Sheila Kelley adopts the grief and sorrow surrounding her character of Laura (the mother) well. Brendan Meyer plays the impressionable type of Luke (the son) suitably, and Leland Orser is adept at being a semi-pathetic type of patriarch.
The film is set during the Halloween season, and at first glance seems to be a callback to the obvious inspirations of John Carpenter’s films. As the story continues it becomes integral to the aesthetic of the film, casting a particular specter of tension over the film. The film even stages its climax around a festive maze. Does it overstretch and go out of its way to make that whole sequence possible? Yes. Is it absolutely a blast to watch though? HELL YES.
Not since Drive has a film had this fun of a relationship with its soundtrack, each track setting the mood while simultaneously providing a tongue-in-cheek dark humor to each sequence. It’s reliance on synth-pop stylings works as an effect that is both retro and modern – a sonic literalization of the film’s aesthetic.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are emerging as some of the most exciting genre filmmakers around right now. They have a clear sense of genre familiarity, and seek to take genre tropes to exciting new places. Most triumphantly though is how much fun they manage to create doing it. The film will erupt into brutal and quick bursts of violence, and each time adds a palpable amount of tension to the central mystery. It’s always refreshing to see action and violence driven by the story and by character rather than the other way around, and this film relies on that mechanism of storytelling. Wingard stages one of the most exciting and thoroughly engaging action sequences this year (you’ll know it when you see it, best not to spoil the details), joining the company of The Raid 2: Berandal, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
As stated before, this film goes to some absolutely bonkers places, along the way asking more questions about David’s true identity than answering them. Most of the time I would be let down by that, but thankfully these two have made a film that’s simply such a blast to watch that it elevates itself above these issues. By the time it starts avoiding the specifics of its central mystery to go further into its madness, it’s got you hooked. You’re willing to drop your reservations of its logic and go with them. These two seem to know an audience is watching their film, and know how to subvert and play with audience expectations well. When the final line is uttered in disbelief, you can’t help but repeat it back to the film with glee as soon as the credits start rolling.
– Dylan Moses Griffin