The Guest Room [Grimmfest Review]: Unwelcome Guests
Some films can have you immersed from their opening image. Memorable seconds that begin a film are seared into our brains and are instantly recognisable. Whether it’s the tracking shot through the apartment window in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the stalking underwater perspective shots in Spielberg’s Jaws, or the swooping landscapes of Kubrick’s The Shining, these opening seconds leave an indelible impression on us. This is true for Italian Horror The Guest Room that begins its twisted and tense tale with a beautifully framed shot of a distraught woman teetering on the sill of the large open window of her second story bedroom, instantly setting the tone for this haunting Thriller. The sky outside is muted grey, she is wearing a soaking wet wedding dress and draped in a floor length veil, her makeup and hair is dishevelled, and her intentions are clear. Until there is a knock on the door.
On the doorstep stands a mysterious and charming stranger, a man who is somehow both affable and slightly ominous at the same time. Stella (Camila Filippi), still dressed in her sodden gown, was clearly not expecting a guest, seeming disappointed that he is not somebody else and frustrated at his insistence that he has booked the house’s guest room. Reluctant to let this man, who introduces himself as Giulio (Guido Caprino), enter her house it is not until he names her husband, Sandro (Edoardo Pesce), and insinuates a connection with him that her demeanour softens ever so slightly and she allows him into her home. Giulio wastes no time in making himself at home in Stella’s beautiful Gothic manor house, seeming eerily familiar with both the home and Stella herself. He’s intrusive but with a strange charm, somehow terrifying in one moment and utterly disarming in another.
“Filippi is the portrait of a broken woman, distraught and distressed but not utterly blameless in the situation she has found herself tangled in.”
Things remain uneasy, but calm, as Stella and Giulio begin to talk, discussing cafes in Japan in which you can rent a ‘family member’ for a few hours, a nice touch that will become so much more relevant as the film progresses. This atmosphere is soon shattered by the arrival of Sandro who claims he has never spoken to or heard of the mysterious guest. Giulio’s cover is blown and the narrative then descends into a psychological home invasion torment film, as he menaces the once happy couple with the reality of their broken marriage, second chance families and suicidal intentions. His veil of compassion is just as tattered as the one Stella wore in the opening scenes. He seems to flit from vulnerable to psychotic, protective to defensive in the blink of an eye. All testament to the excellent performance from Guido Caprino.
The forcible marriage counselling and uncomfortable tension of the second act of this film is soon overtaken by the existential twist that comes with the reveal of who the stranger is, and what his intentions are for this damned couple. Throw away lines suddenly make more sense, the knowledge he had becomes understandable and the themes of guilt, consequences and accountability become incredibly clear as the quiet unease of before becomes an all-out fight for survival. Here the inescapable single location set becomes a real asset in enhancing the anxiety and desperation of the lead characters, culminating in an epic showdown and an emotional climax.
The three central characters of this thrilling film all play their parts excellently. Filippi is the portrait of a broken woman, distraught and distressed but not utterly blameless in the situation she has found herself tangled in. Pesce works well as the failing patriarch who fell out of love a long time ago and wants to blame everyone else for his own problems. But, the true star here is Caprino, who’s eccentric performance was drenched in menace and yet oddly tender when called for. His psychopath energy is wild and yet he seems so vulnerable at the same time, a man who never truly felt loved or understood. The Guest Room gets the best from its small ensemble cast and single location set, never feeling slow or unimaginative.
Director and co-writer Stefano Lodovichi melds genres with this Gothic tale of parental fears and broken families. There’s a haunting beauty to the house, and its main inhabitant Stella, that lingers in the memory, just as that opening shot does. Despite moments that could be perceived as absurd this film does seem to be exploring something very real, just through an intensified lens. Lodovichi pays attention to the details, laying out hints to be picked up on a second viewing, whilst also paying homage to psychological and horrific genre fare that has come before it. With hints of The Shining, a little bit of Psycho and a shot of Funny Games, The Guest Room manages to grab the viewer’s interest from its first moment and keep a tight hold of it all the way until the revealing end.