The Oscar race is underway, with its depressing churn of predictable bland shoo-ins like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, coupled with the politically vile (not that the Academy cares) American Sniper and the scattershot and smug mess that is Birdman. I don’t hate all of the top contenders, exactly: Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel are works of singular artistic vision – if they are nothing else, they’re that – and Whiplash is a fun monster thriller masquerading as a musical künstlerroman.
But out of all the films I’ve watched during the holiday season and just about beyond, it’s not decorated ‘art dramas’ – to use Noam Chomsky’s charming descriptor for middlebrow awards-bait – that made me stand to attention. That honour goes to the workmanlike talents of Adam Wingard, whose You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014) captured my imagination and made me feel like a kid again.
My good friend Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone described the former film as an adult version of Home Alone in a lot of ways, and taken on those terms, Wingard’s high-concept but low-budget home invasion thriller works a treat. Extra geek points for casting fellow indie directors Joe Swanberg and Ti West, along with a matronly role from the formerly oft-naked Barbara Crampton, who furnished many a young boy’s burgeoning sexual fantasies in the cult splatter fests envisioned by Stuart Gordon (and often based on the works of HP Lovecraft). But the film thankfully doesn’t waste too much screen time on geeky winking and nudging, instead getting on with the violent and inventive-prop-heavy job at hand with brutal gusto and a healthy dose of black humour. There’s no excuses made for the moral implausibility of its central premise (and twist), nor for the explained-away survival skills of its Australian protagonist, Erin (Sharni Vinson), and that’s fine. You’re Next belongs to neither of the flogged-horses of contemporary horror – torture porn and found footage – and it gets extra points for me on that basis alone.
The Guest is similarly un-trendy in its evocation of meaty genre thrills of yore: this time the action thrillers of the 70s and 80s, albeit with a Drive-like sonic wash courtesy of an evocative ear-worm of an electro soundtrack. Its narrative anatomy appears to suggest a military thriller brimming beneath the (suburban) surface. But as the John Carpenter-esque opening credits font suggests: we’re entering into Halloween territory, and if this weren’t clear enough already, the film is set during Halloween too. But again, the references don’t call attention to themselves, and Wingard commits to his material and his influences to craft something that’s a direct descendant of a lineage – pulpy as it may be – and not a threadbare imitation with references stapled on. What this means is that we look forward to every lurid twist and payoff, and that Wingard delivers it. Dan Stevens, formerly of Downton Abbey, also ‘gets’ what the project is all about: it’s a loving tribute, not a cynically knowing one.
Although it garnered a generous clutch of positive reviews, The Guest fared abysmally at the American box office. But that’s to be expected, really. Wingard’s films have been hatched into a cinematic atmosphere that favours either young-adult reboots and/or superhero epics on the one hand, and hyped-to-death awards bait on the other – the latter of which ends up being more about the viability of their stars than the story they occupy.
But I think Wingard’s films remain important aberrations in the scene. Freed from the insipid and facile ‘irony’ of most latter-day B-movies, but possessing a canny intelligence that helps them rise above morass, they are primordial and fully pleasurable experiences. Like the splatter-heavy but vivacious early short stories of Clive Barker, they eschew subtlety and good taste to tap into the childish – not childlike – anarchic side. Sure, Bunuel this ain’t – but at least it’s something akin to Gremlins.
And Hollywood needs a similar injection of crazy, stat. It needs wilder dreams. Sleep of reason produces monsters, and all that…