Mitchell Brown discusses how The Guest's lead antagonist, David toys with preconceived notions of what a horror villain should be.
Monsters in horror films have existed as long as cinema, from Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) to Mia Goth in Pearl (2022). Monsters take various shapes, and their motivations can be just as diverse. Out of the haze of more well-known horror film antagonists arrives David (Dan Stevens) from The Guest (2014), the destined-to-be cult classic from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. Written as a combination of Michael Myers and The Terminator, David breaks genre conventions on what a horror villain should and can be. David is an antagonist that leans on charisma and sincerity, establishing himself as a villain with a strong desire for self-preservation. He reigns as one of the most likable monsters in horror cinema.
The film focuses on the Peterson family, who lose their son Caleb (Chris Harding) in Iraq. His parents, Laura (Sheila Kelley) and Spencer (Leland Orser) try to wade through it and provide for their other two kids: Luke (Brendan Meyer), a high schooler who has trouble with bullies, and Anna (Maika Monroe), who works at a diner trying to save up for college while also enduring a dysfunctional relationship. Everything changes when David, Caleb's army buddy, arrives to help the family as a favor to his fallen friend. Thanks to his effortless charm and Kentucky accent, they welcome him into their home with (mostly) open arms. Slowly but surely, he helps improve their lives, but his actions become far less altruistic when the truth about David comes to light.
A constant theme among well-known slasher villains is the intrusion into the central characters’ lives. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) invades the dreams and minds of the teens on Elm Street. Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) obstructs the development of summer camps and weekends of debauchery with crazed violence in Friday the 13th (1980). While Michael Myers breaks into the houses, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends are babysitting in Halloween (1978). In every case, these antagonists welcome themselves into the story. This is where David differs. He doesn’t force himself in. He's invited. Every time his stay is prolonged, it’s not because he's tricked the family into allowing him to stay---they want him to be there.
This is because David is likable. Sure, he kills people, and lots of them. He’s a murderer who shows his duality by easily being the most charming character in The Guest. Between his polite mannerisms, with “Yes, sirs” and “Yes, ma’ams,” and his general amiable nature, he immediately places himself on everyone's good side. It’s not strange for a killer to be charismatic in horror films, especially when they represent fictionalized versions of real killers. Zac Efron had a similar effect in his portrayal of Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Incredibly Evil, and Vile (2019). What separates David from that archetype is that he isn't performing an act or trying to gain anyone’s trust for malicious reasons. He’s just a proper gentleman until the situation requires him not to be. He only swears once in the entire film, and that’s when he’s goofing around with Anna’s friends at a party.
What makes David stand out amongst the horror villain and antagonists we know is his stance on violence. Most villains garner a specific motivation for killing or inflicting violence on otherwise innocent people. Jason Voorhees kills out of blind rage, Michael Myers is pure evil and does it instinctively, like the shark from Jaws (1975), and Freddy Krueger kills as a means of revenge against the teens of the people that burned him alive. David doesn’t engage in violence for any of those reasons. He doesn’t appear to gain joy or catharsis from hurting or killing people. The notable exception is his smirk during the death of Major Richard Carver (Lance Reddick), who is attempting to apprehend him. Major Carver was responsible for David’s transformation into a killing machine, which makes his death a likely means of retribution.
David's violence, for the most part, is an act of self-defense. To help Luke with his bullies, David provokes a fight at a local bar by sending demeaning drinks to their table. One action scene later, all of Luke’s bullies are on the ground and aching in pain. However, none of them are attacked just for being there. They only become targets when they engage with David and Luke unfavorably. David doesn’t throw the first punch either—the fight happens after one of the bullies throws a drink in David's face. In retribution, he throws his fireball cocktail, which contains tabasco sauce, in the boy's eyes. Everything that escalates from there is out of self-defense or to protect Luke. He doesn’t chase after the girls that run away when the fight starts, even though they are just as complicit as the others, which further proves my point. David doesn’t attack anyone who isn't a threat. When it's all said and done, he cooly delivers a line about the dangers of serving alcohol to minors and tips the bartender for the damages.
A similar scenario ensues when David buys a gun from Higgins (Ethan Embry) through Anna’s friend Craig (Joel David Moore). After getting acquainted and getting what he wants, David tells him he will kill him. Similar to the bar scene, David doesn’t attack Higgins. He waits until Higgins pulls a gun and defends himself but kills Craig for good measure. This moment is interesting because it’s entirely possible that David was making a joke. He doesn’t threaten to kill Higgins in an intimidating or overtly threatening manner. He says it very drily and directly. It’s almost as if the comment is a test to see what Higgins will do.
David is programmed to protect his identity. Everything he does is out of self-preservation. Major Carver tells Anna, "David has neurological conditioning, Ms. Peterson, designed to protect both him and the experiment. If he feels his identity may be compromised, he’s programmed to clean up all loose ends. I doubt he could stop himself now even if he wanted to." That one line explains everything. David isn't killing indiscriminately or because it’s fun. He’s doing it because that’s what he’s conditioned to do, which justifies why he kills Laura and Spencer. They know who he is. He even apologizes to both of them because he doesn’t want to do it—he has to. The same thing happens with Anna’s friend Kristen (Tabatha Shaun). He shoots her in the diner, then blows up the restaurant because there are witnesses.
The point is that David doesn't kill out of need or want. He’s wired to protect his identity, and killing is the only way to avoid complications. That doesn’t morally justify his actions or make him a sympathetic character. However, unlike most villains, it puts his motivations in a gray area.
David stands apart from the onslaught of morally corrupt and evil villains. He uses violence for self-defense rather than out of aggression and is not entirely in control of his actions. Most importantly, he's endearing and hard not to like. While David's character development began as a combination of two dramatically different horror movie monsters, Barrett's smart writing and Stevens' performance transcend the villains we know and love. It’s no small task to make the audience root for the bad guy, but it’s an even larger achievement to make an audience want to be his friend.
Mitchell Brown is a Wisconsin-based horror enthusiast and writer. He is an aspiring screenwriter graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, majoring in English with a minor in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres.