I’m sure we’ve all had those Christmases where you’re forced to meet your extended family – cousins you’ve never met, uncles that seem entirely unrelated, family friends that you’ve never heard of until that moment. Navigating the awkward social niceties of these events can be the bane of one’s existence, and for good reason – Christmas is a time for spending it with your loved ones, and there’s just a bunch of strangers in your living room, telling terrible jokes and smelling vaguely of mulled wine. Hosts takes this dilemma and transforms it into a nightmare.
Headed by the director/writer duo of Richard Oakes and Adam Leader, we follow a family celebrating Christmas Day, having invited two family friends Jack (Neal Ward) and Lucy (Samantha Loxley) who live nearby, who upon arrival act strangely cold and indifferent to everything around them. After the Christmas dinner is brought to a horrific sudden halt, the family are forced to endure torturous mind games through a visceral gauntlet placed down by the malicious pair and attempt to survive the night in the face of impossible odds.
Initially, Hosts appears to meander within its characters and their relationships, however that’s a clever deception on the parts of the co-directors, designed to seduce you into a state of passivity, so that they may rip you out of that comfort zone, throwing you into the fireplace where the stockings hang above. By pacifying your audience into an almost bored submission, through the trivial conversations of couples and families at Christmas, you are able to design your tension to strike precisely when the audience is at their most vulnerable, to rip off the facade of humanity and expose the sickening grotesque truth that lies beneath. It’s a disgusting pummel that hits you so unexpectedly, you’re immediately sent under in a wash of confusion and terror. It’s clear that the duo have the story prioritised, with the scares and the violence following suit, which is a refreshing approach given the potentially schlocky nature that a film like Hosts can ultimately travel down.
Immediately, there are influences that seem to pop out to you – Haneke’s Funny Games being a particular example, similarly brutal and unflinching in its depiction of a home invasion. This is not a film for the faint-hearted, and it is certainly not a film for those who shy away from gore – Oakes and Leader make that very clear within the first 30 minutes. Loxley and Ward are experts at embracing their demonic selves, creating these monstrous entities who are at-once childish and frighteningly ancient in their depiction. It’s the little things that strike you the most – Loxley’s uncontrollable dribble onto Nadia Lumin’s Lauren as she breaks down over their latest little challenge posed to her, or Ward’s dead eyes staring into the abyss of the darkness. Their macabre games that they play with the family are only as strong as those orchestrating them, and Ward and Loxley perform their roles as perverse children playing with these living toys as though it’s a second nature to them.
Our family provides powerhouse performances as well, particularly from daughter Lauren (Nadia Lumin) and Father Michael (Franke Jakeman), with much of the action pivoting between these two characters. Oakes and Leader performs a precarious balancing act between the pair – as one is tortured, the other advances in some form – which in itself instils a false sense of hope and ultimate triumph over these sick creatures. Both actors embody such a raw sense of a broken mind, with Michael forced to confront sins from his past, whilst Lauren is pushed further and further to breaking point to pay for his misgivings. Through this, their authentic selves are extracted from the social niceties and artificial performance we see them enact during their Christmas celebration, through Michael’s confessions of guilt and Lauren’s ability to take life eventually arising, both condemning and benefitting her at once.
Attempting to dance around the greater moments of Hosts is difficult, as there are genuinely horrific and disgusting moments within, but to witness them completely unaware or uninformed is a gift in itself. It’s a danse macabre of horror, leading us from room to room as things devolve further and further. As well as this, there are some surprises that lay in store that begin to shift the narrative in unexpected directions, and lead you questioning prior breadcrumbs that Oakes and Leader place early within the first third, clearly setting up a wider scope than we are led to believe.
This bloody, violent mess is a fantastic first feature from the pair, encapsulating a range of tones from the horror genre – psychological, thriller, and another I shan’t spoil – it’s one of my favorites from FrightFest for the risks it takes and the deliberately deceptive writing, and you should absolutely check it out when you can.