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Adam Wingard's Brian de Palma Moment: Intertextual Reference and the Citational Play of Horror-Comedy

by Ethan Tussey

by John Roberts for IN MEDIA RES

“What the hell is this?” asks Major Carver, upon entering a school gymnasium to rescue Luke, a student whose life is in danger from an out of control experimental super-soldier in Adam Wingard’s The Guest (2014). The gym has been decorated as a haunted house for the school’s Halloween Dance, and Carver will have to navigate a maze before he can reach the imperiled Luke. Carver’s surprise at suddenly being confronted with a horror display might well reflect the spectator’s own reaction to this latest generic twist in the film, which begins as a thriller before careening into a sci-fi tinged action film, and finally culminating in a slasher horror finale. The finale is full of intertextual references to (among others) Carrie, The Shining, Terminator 2, Halloween 3, and Die Hard. While the horror genre is distinguished by its intense intertextuality, I would suggest that The Guest does more than merely cite influences, but uses intertextual reference and generic convention as a Hitchcockian red herring, a narrative deception that allows the film to remain unpredictable by evoking and violating multiple sets of generic conventions. In doing so, the film’s citation system hearkens to Brian de Palma’s deployment of other films’ visual grammar as much as it acknowledges influences and establishes credentials.To paraphrase Chris Dumason Phantom of the Paradise (1974): anything can happen, so long as it has already happened in another movie. The Guest--like The Cabin in the Woods (2012)--is a self-reflexive film that uses the game as a figure for the structure of the spectator’s experience of watching the film, and in which this ludic aspect is doubly articulated at both intertextual and narrative levels. The citation of other films’ visual grammar both functions as a set of referential in-jokes for horror fans and cinephiles, functioning as a playful game in itself, but also helps to shape the narrative structure of the film in ways that enhance its efficacy as a thriller, even while it makes the film both more fun and more funny. In doing so, the film raises important questions about the status of reference with respect to genre in the age of digital random access and forensic fandom: to what extent is the playfulness of intertextual reference a cornerstone of the horror genre? Are the narrative/textual and ludic/hypertextual aspects of such intertextuality necessarily at odds, or is the tension productive?

Horror Comedy and The Guest

A clip from The Guest

from The Guest (2014)
Creator: Adam Wingard
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey