Written and Directed by: Adam Leader, Richard Oakes
Starring: Neal Ward, Nadia Lamin, and Frank Jakeman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Years ago, a father and his family lived in a big, bright house..."
You know, as much as I love the holiday season— like, I will put up Christmas lights the day after Halloween—having over guests for the holidays (or even just being a guest in a crowded house) gives me major anxiety. Of course, I (and most reasonable people) won’t have to worry about that this year, but fret not: Adam Leader and Richard Oakes have bundled up all of the holiday gathering anxiety you need with Hosts, a strikingly-shot and well-performed Yuletide body snatchers riff that also reveals the underlying horrors of the materialism that’s crept over the holidays. This Christmas, the only thing that’s being gifted is a gore-soaked reckoning.
Jack (Neal Ward) and his wife Lucy (Samantha Lockley) are all set to enjoy their usual Christmas tradition of dining with the Henderson family. After exchanging some gifts between themselves, they’re ready to head out until Lucy spots a strange pair of lights in the distance that soon invade both their home and their bodies, leaving them as vacant husks as they trod into the Henderson home, dead-eyed and silent. Their Hosts don’t seem to notice: they prattle on with their usual holiday banter, totally oblivious that Jack is suddenly enamored with patriarch Michael’s (Frank Jakeman) shotgun. They also don’t notice Lucy clutching a hammer beneath the dinner table as the siblings tease each other about their love lives--or lack thereof. Suffice it to say, this dinner is about to be fucked by a pair of guests who have unwittingly become not-so-heavenly hosts.
Hosts is worthwhile, if only for the unnerving tension and spectacularly, startling payoff of this scene. Leader and Oakes tease it out masterfully, as the playful dinner table banter takes a serious turn when matriarch Cassie (Jennifer K. Preston) addresses the elephant in the room: her cancer diagnosis, which carries a grim outlook. She tearfully leads the family through her treatments, noting that chemotherapy often only prolongs life instead of eradicating the disease. It feels much too grim for a Christmas movie, even one that’s surely going to go haywire like Hosts; it’s downright manipulative even, almost as if Leader and Oakes are ladling on some misery porn as an appetizer to the mayhem.
But it winds up being a bit of a fake-out: Cassie reveals she’s actually in remission, much to the delight of her entire family, including her youngest son who has to be explained exactly what remission means. But just as the audience gets swept up in the moment, they remember: that hammer’s just out of the frame, waiting. You’ve heard of Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” mantra, and Leader and Oakes deploy it with gusto here. The explosion is downright diabolical, an unhinged outburst of violence that scatters brain matter all over the table and the shocked family who thought they had their mother back for good. Now, they can only look on in horror at the bloody pulp oozing onto the table. Like a great movie’s tagline once put it: it’s not cranberry sauce.
And while the rest of Hosts doesn’t quite reach the heights of this demented moment, it’s captivating enough, if not a touch conventional. What follows this hellish dinner is mostly standard torture stuff, with Jack and Lucy subjecting the family to rigors of the flesh and the mind. Some of this—like a sequence where a sister has to deliberate over having to kill her brother under duress--drags a bit, especially since Hosts is dangling an obvious mystery before the audience that it never quite answers. The force that’s overtaken Jack and Lucy seems vaguely extraterrestrial but remains vague until the end, leaving the audience to grasp a bit at what Leader and Oakes are really up to. Scattered clues reveal that Christmas itself may be the real target here, as the duo takes the holiday season and mangles it into bleak reckoning of past and present as Michael confronts his suppressed history with Jack.
Set to the tune of off-key Christmas carols and unfolding in the shadow of increasingly sinister religious imagery, Hosts cuts to the dark heart of the holiday. Television plays a crucial role throughout: first, during a scene where Michael and his oldest son watch a news broadcast that bemoans the resurgence in the Pagan Christmas, something neither of them seems to note as they mindlessly sit in front of the set. Later on, Michael shows off the only heirloom he inherited from his father: the vintage TV set he once sat in front of with his old man. He now admits he doesn’t even remember the programs they once watched together—only that they did spend that time together, apparently becoming drones in front of the TV. Eventually, the mysterious force overtaking everyone’s bodies (more human drones eventually descend on the house, heightening the paranoiac intensity) emanates from the TV itself, further hinting at the insidious nature of the airwaves. I couldn't help but think how much of my own holidays have been spent in the glow of a television set, whether I was watching classic Christmas specials, commercials that have long since become nostalgic staples, or just playing the latest video game. Hosts tries to do for Christmas what Halloween III did for All Hallows Eve by juxtaposing a holiday’s commercialized present with its pagan past.
Between this and the frequent, prominent shots of religious imagery, Hosts seems to be implying that Christmas has lost its way: religion has taken a backseat to the consumerist nature of the holidays, thanks in large part to the television itself, which peddles materialistic wares to drones. Hosts literalizes this by twisting those airwaves into a plague of death and destruction from an unknown signal. Is it from the skies? Or is it from the distant, pagan past, a rough beast slouching its way to reclaim a holiday gone astray? I’m not quite sure all of this comes into focus as well as it could, but Hosts aspires to do more than simply exploit the incongruity of Christmas horror. It seeks to genuinely confront the holiday and turn it inside-out by decimating its conventions: the gift exchanges, the cheerful family dinner, the idle chatter of parties. All of this stuff becomes increasingly trivial to the Hendersons, whose idyllic existence is shattered by violence and long-repressed secrets.
By the end of Hosts, maybe you’ll be really glad you won’t have a big gathering this Christmas after all. Say what you want about your perpetually sloshed uncle Chet, but I’m guessing even his wildest ramblings haven’t been punctuated with him plunging a hammer into anyone’s skull.
Hosts is now available on DVD from Dark Sky Films. Special features include interviews, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and the film's trailer.
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