A glamorous dinner party goes horribly wrong in Tess Little’s debut novel, The Last Guest. The host, ostentatious director Richard Bryant, ends up dead and all the guests are suspects. So far, so Agatha Christie, but Little draws from the novel’s setting in the Hollywood Hills to cinematic effect, using the tropes of classic film noir and more modern, surrealist thrillers to create something entirely her own. If you find yourself wanting to watch a movie after finishing The Last Guest, Little has five perfect pairings in mind.
It would be impossible to distinguish all the influences on any novel—as impossible as unmixing paint or lifting brushstrokes from the canvas. But those that had the greatest impact will always loom large in the writer’s mind. My debut novel, The Last Guest, is set in Los Angeles, and so I often reached for films while seeking inspiration. Who could paint a portrait of that city without wielding the color and texture of cinema?
The Invitation (2015), directed by Karyn Kusama
The Invitation is a masterful, slow-burning character study that explores grief, survival and unravelling social norms. As a horror film, it largely differs from my novel, a murder mystery. But their premises mirror each other closely—a home perched in the Hollywood Hills, an intimate dinner party, the mounting tension and creeping dread. As I was writing The Last Guest, my thoughts kept returning to the winding road in the opening scene, leading the protagonist towards his ex-wife’s house and the horrific night awaiting him there.
Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch
Darker and more surreal than Sunset Boulevard, neo-noir Mulholland Drive was another film that sat with me as I wrote. The Last Guest is less of a dreamscape, more firmly rooted in reality, but the rich colors, underlying unease and ugly Hollywood truths of Lynch’s masterpiece were hanging over me nonetheless.
The Octopus (1928), directed by Jean Painlevé
If the 2020 runaway hit documentary My Octopus Teacher had been released before I wrote The Last Guest, it would certainly have provided inspiration for Persephone—the giant Pacific octopus who appears in the novel. As it was, I had to search for the creatures elsewhere, and found the silent, underwater films of French director Jean Painlevé online. In The Octopus, the strange anatomy of this alien animal is presented in black and white, tight close-ups giving a detailed study of how octopuses crawl, climb and jet through the water, how their siphons inflate to breathe and how their skin cells change color to camouflage.
Play it as it Lays (1972), directed by Frank Perry
Joan Didion’s spare, exacting prose has long served as an example for my own writing, and so too did Play it as it Lays, the film based on her novel of the same name. Protagonist Maria drifts through LA in an existential emptiness, taking long, lonely drives, much as my novel’s narrator, Elspeth, does. The sun is shining, as are the cars, the teeth, the oversized shades—but it all means nothing to Maria.
Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder
Any thriller set in LA will naturally be inspired by classic film noir, and Sunset Boulevard has everything you could want from the genre: a body floating in the swimming pool, a decaying mansion, directors and former silent movie stars playing themselves, even a chimpanzee funeral. While The Last Guest doesn’t feature an oil painting that lifts to reveal a cinema screen or a dead chimp, my own version of 10086 Sunset Blvd. does contain a pet octopus—and a projector screen that rolls down over its aquarium.