Directed by: Adam Leader, Richard Oakes. Starring: Neal Ward, Nadia Lamin, Frank Jakeman. Runtime: 1h 29 min. Released: October 2, 2020.
Minor spoilers follow in this review.
Christmas is a time for family and friends, where everyone can come together and rejoice in the Christmas spirit. The Henderson family learn the hard way that they should not have had company this year, as they invite a younger couple, Jack (Neal Ward) and Lucy (Samantha Loxley) over for dinner. What they don’t know is that Jack and Lucy have just become possessed by something otherworldly that comes in the form of small bright orbs, and for these Hosts, these Christmas celebrations are about to become a living hell.
I figure I’d start with the performances here, because the performances are a big highlight. Neal Ward and Samantha Loxley are a great pair, at the beginning of the film when they’re just playing the normal Jack and Lucy, they share a nice Christmas moment, where Jack gives Lucy a present and she’s thankful for it. The acting here is very sweet. It’s a great creative choice, too, to have this film start out like a feel-good Christmas film and then go into something else entirely. They reach a new level of performance when they become possessed. Ward taps into a calculated speaking pattern akin to Alan Rickman, as the character chooses his words so carefully and punctuates certain words for maximum effect.
Loxley also gives it her all in this side of her performance, and when she smiles, you know these characters are in danger. Her facial expressions are what really make this character, and she can tell a helluva bedtime story. There’s a campy, theatrical side to these two performances that makes the film very fun. It’s never comedy, but it lightens the mood of a dreadful situation, and that’s welcoming. They are both intimidating in their own right – delivering creepy monologues left and right, laying out their motivations in kinds of soliloquies that make perfect sense to the villains.
I think that’s where some of the vagueness in Hosts comes from that I found disappointing, they deliver these captivating monologues that are very well-written (with the screenplay written by co-director Adam Leader, and the other co-director Richard Oakes receives a “story by” credit here), but I still don’t know if I understand these villains as it doesn’t tap into enough of who they are. I’m still not even sure if they are aliens or demons, as they seem to have components to both with the orbs, and that visual side of this gives it a lite science-fiction feel. This is all kept vague on purpose and I’m not someone who always needs the narrative explained, but for a film with very precise pacing that has a focus on dialogue, I think learning more about these villains would have been fulfilling because I was very interested in them.
There’s an argument that their mystery is part of their appeal, like in another home invasion film like The Strangers where we barely understand why they’re doing this. And anyway, by the end of Hosts we get a semblance of an answer, but the stronger character work lies with the Henderson’s as they are the focus of the film’s family drama and they’re led by patriarch Michael (Frank Jakeman). The family dynamics lean well into the psychological and emotional horror when the film taps into some Funny Games psychological material. There’s a sense that the possessed “Jack” and “Lucy” are doing this for shits and giggles, making it all the more terrifying. The most memorable psychological moment is when they make the family’s eldest daughter, Lauren (a strong Nadia Lamin), make a decision that has truly chilling implications. This idea alone has enough material to be the centre-piece of its own film.
I was surprised by the focus on the family drama here. Some of the dialogue in this family drama is admittedly cheesy, but it adds to the authenticity of the film and their dynamics, like what with the aspect of the film with the matriarch Cassie (Jennifer K Preston) battling cancer. Some of these conversations threaten to weigh down the pacing of the film, as well, but Leader and Oakes find strong ways to insert tension and horror into the drama and recapture our attention. The violence is brutal and there’s one big scene that kicks off the festivities that feels like a gift in itself.
Richard Oakes is also the cinematographer of the film and he has a great style, where some scenes visually call upon horror films like Hereditary (especially with the set design and room shape of the attic), and some of the film’s most frightening moments are effective because of writing and how it’s shot. The visual effects with the orbs and when the characters’ eyes are affected have a strong attention to detail, too. I can’t speak to what duties Oakes and Leader shared, but they’re a strong team and as this is their first feature, I’d be curious to see what madness they have planned next.