Arts Reviewing, Film Review

A Tale of Two Thrillers: When 1931 classic “M” and 2014’s “The Guest” collide

Fritz Lang’s “M” and Adam Wingard’s “The Guest” aren’t exactly two movies that would mesh well together in a movie marathon.

For starters, the former was filmed in 1931 and the latter was only very recently released into theaters. But don’t worry, beyond that, they’re super similar: “M” is a black and white, German language film about a serial child killer– which is exactly as inviting as it sounds –and “The Guest,” …well, that one’s also as pleasing as it’s trailer (sex! smirks! revenge! lots of guns and violence and a really hot mysterious soldier!) would suggest. Have I mentioned the hunky blue-eyed British protagonist faking his way through a sultry American accent yet?

Sarcasm aside, there’s one tenuous thread tying the two films together that makes for an intriguing comparison: the label “thriller.”

Now here’s the really fun question: what makes a “thriller” a thriller? Gratuitous violence? A mere threat of violence throughout the film? Does there even need to be violence?

How about the actors– does the magic lie with them, or should thrills come from a rollercoaster script whipping viewers back and forth between enough plot twists to leave them faintly concussed? Whatever the method, the result should always be a sensation that urges you towards the edge of your seat.

In that sense, both “M” and “The Guest” are markedly successful thrillers, and putting them side by side reveals the intricacies of true thrill and how various directors intend to evoke it.

First, “M”: a cinematic simmer likely foreign to modern day moviegoers used to faster, punchier fare. For a movie encompassing a fair 111 minutes, it feels exponentially longer due to Lang’s directed limp into action. The serial child murderer upon whom the film centers is mentioned frequently by various characters, but appears only 2-3 times within the first third of the film, and always with his face obscured. Rather, Lang treats viewers to a community unravelling.

Parents are terrified that their child could be next, that several seconds of inattention could doom them. Petty criminals are stressed they’re being scapegoated and blamed for crimes beyond even their faulty moral compasses. The criminal elite underbelly are stressed their business is being thwarted. The police are putting on a brave front in their search for the KINDERMORDER but are ultimately left impotent as he eludes them time and time again. There’s terror, anger, a city tearing apart at the seams …and all this without a protagonist to terrify. As “M”’s runtime ticks away, Lang’s directorial style reveals itself as deliberate, and engrossing in a terribly disconcerting way.

If “M” is a slow burn, “The Guest” is a flash-bang from beginning to end.

For the whole movie, you more or less know what’s going on. A handsome soldier saunters into a small town to tell his dead army buddy’s family that they’re loved, proves so charming he’s invited into the house for an unspecified amount of time, then sets about fixing everyone’s lives while he’s there. It has to be too good to be true. No one that good looking magically appears to beat up your little brother’s high school bullies, or tolerates your brooding but kind of hot older sister MUCH LESS SMOKES WEED WITH HER TO PROVE HE’S HIP, or assuages your father’s probable alcoholism by having a few beers with him here and there without there being some sort of catch.

The suspense here doesn’t come from watching things unravel, it comes from figuring out when and how they are inevitably going to. When the action finally kicks in, it’s kicks in via a 0-60 sensory overload punctuated with 1) enough violence to make your mother cringe from however many miles away she is, 2) lots of moody electro goth rock tunes playing ominously from someone’s speaker 3) so many weird tangents and twists that you’ll exhaust yourself trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. Hint: people definitely die and it’s definitely all hot soldier’s fault.

It’s completely fair to denigrate both films, for better or for worse, as entirely predictable products of their respective eras: pop culture is dynamic and movie trends must reflect that. But beyond whatever cultural demands impacted upon the movies (a meaty script sans special effects for “M” or pomp and circumstance plus great aesthetic for “Guest”), they are carried by actors whose smallest tics help foreshadow and carry out action.

There’s Peter Lorre, the “M” Kindermorder himself in his first scene completely visual to the audience, and the way his eyes bulge comically as he spots a potential victim. He shivers with pleasure as he begins to plan his attack, seconds before he begins to stalk the child. It takes all of 40 seconds, and if you’re not already cringing at this written description Lorre’s performance will certainly send a chill lurching down your spine.

Dan Stevens, a.k.a. David Anderson Collins, a.k.a. hot soldier of “The Guest,” carries 80% of the movie alone with his character’s trademark smirk. First it’s endearing, a saucy compliment to a face that already isn’t too difficult to look at. Then it gets a little annoying, since it pops up in seemingly every conversation he ever has with anyone. Finally, it’s unsettling – a charming, chilling disconnect with the sense of impending doom hanging over his character as it becomes more and more clear how impure his intentions are.

Different roads to the same end. Whether you’re inching towards the edge of your seat with “M” or grabbed by the collar and pulled there by “The Guest,” you’ll certainly end up there.

Perhaps an “M”/”The Guest” movie double feature isn’t really such a bad idea. After all, what’s the point of a thrill if you’ve had it figured out all along?

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