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

Curator's Note

“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?


This reminded me, strangely enough, of an episode of American Dad! in which the Smith family hosts a haunted house on Halloween. Competing with a neighbour for attention, Stan Smith attempts to make his home horrific by housing serial killers behind glass in the basement. As Roger points out, it's not scary because, much like a shark in an aquarium, the threat is absent. It isn't until the killers are accidentally released that real horror is invoked. However, the episode features the dramatically ironic juxtaposition of horror and merriment: the guests in the house being chased by the serial killers think it is simply an act akin to something one might expect of horror-themed amusements (e.g. Knott's Scary Farm in Buena Vista, CA). It sounds like we have a reversal of this in The Guest? Do you see juxtaposing the real with the simulated as something that heightens the tension of horror, generates comedy, both? I'd love to hear what you think.

Michael, your description of that American Dad! episode and your question about simulation reminds me of the 1985 Clue movie, in which real horror is played out according to expectations established by the rules of a board game, and to the amusement of the audience that is familiar with the game. The characters are genuinely terrified, but the audience's ability to 'play along' in a sense by applying knowledge of the conventions of Clue and attempting to solve the mystery distances the audience from the horror, but makes the movie more fun. I would say that The Guest is more a reversal of Clue, where instead of one set of conventions that are treated comically (the rules of Clue), the film by turns establishes and violates multiple sets of generic expectations in a way that undermines and challenges the viewer's sense of textual mastery. In doing so, The Guest discourages the kind of 'safe distance' allowed by Clue (and many other parody horror films), allowing the film the retain both the tension of horror and the release of humor. I would suggest that in general, the act of quoting, referencing, or simulating aspects of one film within another tends to encourage critical distance that breaks the tension of horror and leans toward comedy, but by making such references central to understanding the flow of the narrative, Wingard is able to mobilize intertextual reference in a manner that pulls the audience in as much as it gestures outward. Simulation is also thematized in an interesting way within the film. David, the film's antagonist, initially appears to be just a normal human military veteran, but as the film progresses his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and violent, and we learn that he has been brainwashed by the military and 'programmed' to act in certain ways that we are largely never made privy to. David's ability to be both entertaining and frightening hinges on his unpredictability and the fact that he is following a set of secret directives that are never fully explained to the audience. He embodies the juxtaposition of, and blurring of boundaries between, the real and the simulated, the viscerally human and the abstract and inhuman, and ultimately the film's charm and horror.

I think your last point also ties into David's "awareness" of his place in a specific genre. When the military eventually confronts him at the home he has invaded, he is more frustrated/ironically disappointed than afraid and his "tone" is remarkably different than the other characters. It is not only that he is aware the experiments have forced him to act in a certain way, but he also chafes at what they are forcing him to do. As we've discussed before, I think this is the place where Wingard (and maybe De Palma to a certain extent in terms of Hitchcock) appear "just self-aware enough." There are no clear winks to the viewer (as in Cabin in the Woods) and David seems to resist the fluctuating genre tone of the film; playing with our expectations and literally frustrating them. I don't think this changes any of the good insights you and Michael are noticing, but maybe it suggests we have a sort of floating tolerance for horror/comedy/genre mixing. It Follows, You're Next, and The Guest seem to master that tolerance, but I would argue De Palma does too (most specifically in Body Double). What do you guys think?

I see what you're saying, Dewey. I think it sticks out to me in Cabin in the Woods in particular when certain concessions are made to allow for flux. For example, the stereotypical sacrifice/death must culminate with the virgin. Still, those orchestrating in this film will accept what they can take, even if the "virgin" isn't in fact virginal. I apparently have some catching up to do with horror now as I haven't seen these films in particular (though I know the premises for most). Perhaps shattering the expected tropes is a way to create a new suspension of disbelief? If we expect horror to occur in a certain manner, maybe our frustrations don't indicate disbelief in the new methods so much as a revelation that we compartmentalize, that the old tropes are frustratingly unreal. Thoughts?

I agree that the films you mention seem to have a high tolerance, or even an active interest in, mixing those genres. I do wonder about the degree to which digital technologies of access to films affect this interest in genre mixing, especially when that blending is achieved by making references. The deliberate toying with and shattering of generic expectations could well be related to these technological changes. In 1996 Scream played with the notion that the audience was already well-versed in the conventions of slasher horror, but home video and digital distribution are different technologies with distinctive affordances. Is there relationship between the style of these films and the nature of their ultimately digital exhibition, on VOD, Netflix, etc.? Does that kind of viewership itself demand an allowance for (as Michael mentions) a kind of flux, on a generic/stylistic level? With respect to De Palma, the scathing reviews Body Double and Dressed to Kill received might suggest that he possessed much more tolerance for hybridization and citation than the audience, but again I think this indicates that something significant has changed.

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