Anatomy of a Soundtrack | The Guest (2014)

If you were planning on directing an action thriller that was very much meant to recall an 80s aesthetic, sound and style, there is of course so much you could choose from when it comes to the soundtrack.
Even if you didn’t really want to raid the decade itself then it’s not as if we’re short of the requisite electro-pop and electronica that you would need for such a film these days. However, it perhaps wasn’t as simple as all that for Adam Wingard upon directing The Guest. Working with a budget that seems even smaller than the $1 million he was allowed for his slasher film You’re Next, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t going to have a small fortune to splash around licencing tracks. He probably had to rule out Ultravox and The Human League very early on.
Instead Wingard mined a fascinating mixture of obscurities and forgotten minor classics for a soundtrack that is either deliberately stitched to this film in the most admirable of ways, or he simply grabbed a few of his personal favourites that probably cost about 46p and a half-eaten Kit-Kat to use and hoped they would match the mood of his film. As someone who wasn’t at all impressed by Wingard prior to finding The Guest to be utterly splendid, I find it hard not to lean toward the latter. Happy accident or not, there’s certainly no question in my mind that he’s used Clan Of Xymox and Gatekeeper better than anyone in movie history. To date.
Although The Guest has earned a lot of attention for the very notable uses of tracks and songs in the foreground of the movie, there is barely any soundtrack for the first 15 minutes or so, Instead, Wingard uses momentary bangs and wails to create atmosphere. It’s more like a horror film atmosphere and a technique that John Carpenter would use in his own action thrillers such as Assault On Precinct 13 and Escape From New York.
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Even these snippets have a very 80s sound and feel to them, a really remarkable effort considering how brief they are. Wingard seems keen to make this almost an action/slasher hybrid, something that very much comes to the fore during the film’s marvellous ‘hall of mirrors’ climax where a seemingly invincible Dan Stevens stalks Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer. Like a blonder and much better looking Michael Myers, if you would.
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Strangely, Wingard uses the Berlin Breakdown remix of ‘Anthonio’ by Annie to play over the finish to this ending sequence:

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It’s certainly a fair bit more chilled out than you would normally expect to have playing during such a scene. Lacking the urgency and danger that you might expect during the denouement of any thriller, it instead adds a creepy surreality to a scene that has opted to take the film in a very different direction. It’s also surprisingly effective and disarming. Yet the selection of tracks he uses early on in this scene DOES possess the urgency you might expect. ‘A Day’ by Clan Of Xymox is a perfect one to put you on the edge of your seat while ‘Vengeance’ by Perturbator and ‘Alles Is Gut’ by D.A.F. are ideal follow-ups – in one case, by virtue of its name as well, That Wingard decides to ease the pace down towards the end is unusual but splendidly unpredictable.

Much of the rest of the film’s soundtrack had me wondering why I had never been present at parties and bars where Front 242 and Mike Simonetti were the artists of choice rather than the usual crap we’re usually subjected to from a nearby jukebox or mobile DJ. This retro-baiting is clearly something that’s very important to Wingard in making this film and undoubtedly key to the film’s success and quality. While it would have been easy for Wingard to make just another action film, clearly nostalgia and a sense of recognition are both elements that he wanted audiences to take away from his film. He’s not always subtle in what he’s trying to do here – in fact, he’s rarely so. After all, as brilliant as it is having ‘Haunted When The Minutes Drag’ roar out over Stevens sitting looking menacing on his bed, it’s never flying under any radar.
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Whether you like it as a film or not, The Guest has one of the most interesting and off-the-beaten-path soundtracks you are likely to encounter for quite some time. I might not always respect Wingard’s abilities as a director, but he can do me a mix tape any time.