At about the midpoint of The Guest, David—a soldier ostensibly using his leave to fulfill a promise to a dead squadmate to make sure his family is doing all right—goes to a party with the daughter of the house: surly, suspicious Anna. While she sits with her friends and tries not to do anything that could get her into trouble, David demonstrates the sort of casually superhuman masculinity that defines his character by bringing two kegs inside like they're a couple of reams of printer paper. Then he strolls over and picks up the joint Anna declined for a self-consciously cool puff (which director Adam Barrett frames with a wash of lurid neon and thudding party music), letting the smoke seep out his open mouth as he stares Anna down, offering her the joint. The challenge is clear, but so too is the threat: he knows this little secret about her, he's got nothing to lose, and she might as well do as he suggests . . . or else. She looks him in the eye, because she knows his game, but still she takes the joint. This is a horror movie; you have to give the monster some room for a while before you start fighting back.
Few genres are more actively in conversation with themselves than horror. Based on shared tropes that make homage inevitable, and well aware of the rest of the field, horror seems to exist loosely grouped in a few generously permeable membranes through which references can be effortlessly plucked: psychological horror, gore porn, eldritch, and technological horror routinely draw from one another; terror is as effective in its repetition as poetry. Horror has been such an influence on cinema vocabulary since the invention of the form that the empty space in a camera frame has become a state of suspense. It's a genre in which the Evil Dead and Scream movies can mock the standard formula while also becoming cases in point: in horror, even knowledge of the fourth wall can't really save you.
But that's the crux of horror, really; there has to be a sin. There has to be a wife in the attic; there has to be a forbidden house in the middle of the forest; there has to be a promise broken. (It's not always fair—many a psychological horror punishes people, particularly women, for being unhappy, or confident, or for trusting the wrong person—but that's horror, isn't it, that the camera doesn't care who lives or who dies, and the nature of the sin is dictated by the monsters?) What makes horror a genre of such counterintuitive comfort is that there are moments we can count on: there's a killer around the corner, there's a monster in the dark, there's a group of kids trespassing in the cemetery, there's someone who needs to spend the night in the manor house beside the road.
It's so comforting, in fact, that part of the enjoyment of a horror movie goes beyond the catharsis of dread or the aesthetic appreciation of a damsel in an artfully crumbling house: laughing at the doomed becomes part of the experience that the movie manipulates. In something that has as foolproof a formula as horror, some of the tropes inevitably take on an air of camp; don't bother getting in any form of transit, because it's going to give out on you just down the road from that goddamn manor house. There's a certain level of staginess (occasionally in inverse proportion to budget) that employs those tropes in ways that cut through any chance at suspense because you're too busy laughing. And camp tends to emerge from a certain level of remove rather than being manufactured in the moment. Some can aim for it, of course, and Rocky Horror gained a cult following for good reason, but it was designed from the beginning to be weird; the films of Ed Wood become more interesting the farther away from their contemporaries we get. (The rise of social media has sped up this process, as it speeds up everything else, so much that the current camp-classic identification cycle could conceivably include Jupiter Ascending, which came out a mere eight months ago, even though it seems that rollerblading dog-angels must have always been with us.)
But in the current cinema landscape, camp is as much under interrogation as any other aspect of horror, and it is a central concern of The Guest. On the surface, The Guest is a knowing throwback to '80s psychological thrillers and super-soldier B-movies, with a splash of the troubled-family horror. David shows up on the Petersons' doorstep claiming to be a friend of their son who died in Afghanistan; he tells them he's stopping by to make good on his promise to their departed son to take care of the family in his absence. For grief-numb mother Laura, petty father Spencer, and bullied younger brother Luke, David's arrival is a dream come true; he's polite, sympathetic, protective—the full measure of a man. (If he seems preternaturally calm and prone to bursts of disconnected violence, well, nobody's perfect, and it's in defense of the family, after all.) Only Anna, the family daughter, thinks David is suspect—on one level because she doesn't buy his story, but also, as she admits to her boyfriend, because he brings a particular atmosphere back into the house that she thinks they might be just as well off without. Naturally, David won't stop until he wins her over or shouts her down, and his slow unraveling reveal of the damaged and toxic masculinity underneath the protective-gentleman facade makes up the majority of the movie's plot.
It would also be a source of suspense, except that one of the things The Guest is terribly sure of is that we all know from the beginning how this is going to end. Our first sound is a veritable foghorn of minor-key dismay, and whenever David is unobserved the score switches desperately to music that feels like it's on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and warning Anna directly. Some movies reveal their monsters slowly; this one doesn't see much point. We've seen toxic masculinity before. At no point are we allowed to believe that David will be revealed as a desperate but sympathetic antihero that would tilt the movie into thriller territory. It's a horror movie; David and his unflappable, violent masculinity are the camp elements being deconstructed. He's a monster, and the movie makes sure to remind us.
The movie's real dread, the thing that builds until it scares us, is the way The Guest manipulates that same masculinity to encourage us to laugh at it—to see it as camp despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. By the time he carries two kegs absentmindedly into a party and beats up the hostess's abusive ex, we're meant to laugh at all the superhero bullshit. (We're definitely meant to laugh when the hostess waits the least perceptible unit of measurable time before she offers to give him a private tour the rest of the house.) The film's most suspense-generating disconnect is between the degree to which toxic masculinity viewed from afar is hilarious, and the degree to which toxic masculinity viewed close up will literally kill you. What does the family do to deserve their deaths? Nothing. This is a horror movie; the monster makes the rules, and anyone who threatens his authority has to go. Young Luke, in a burst of loyalty to David after David gets him out of a scrape at school, tells him about Anna's suspicions; he lives only because Anna fights for him. Anna lives because she emerges from the temptation to buy into that brand of masculinity as something that can protect anyone; when she has him at the end of a gun, she knows to shoot rather than let him explain his empty reasons why.
From its opening minutes to its final ones—David running dozens of miles to reach the Petersons, and David arriving at the school gym, fresh from blowing up a diner full of witnesses, so he can finish off Luke and Anna—The Guest is clearly in on its own joke; this is a movie that likes its characters enough to give them all a personality, with a camera dispassionate enough to watch half of them die in a detached mid-shot. But it's also engaging, consciously or not, with several questions about the nature of camp horror itself. Most importantly, it asks: does making this horrific masculinity funny make it less terrifying—make it an object of scrutiny as well as laughter? It's hard to deny; everything down to the death throes is designed with a wink, but there are also scenes in which his all-violence agenda is funny because of the ways it frightens Luke, and the ways Anna's opinion about David gets shouted down by people who end up dead at his hand. (Is this actually the horror movie's necessary sin—that deafness to women?) And are you meant to realize, halfway through a moment of over-the-top dark humor, that laughing in the face of monstrous behavior removes us from the horror? David's on a thousand doorsteps; how funny can that be?