Everyone loves a weekend getaway with friends. A quick jaunt to the country where you can unplug, unwind, and clear out the cobwebs. In the past decade or so, lots of folks, particularly those in their twenties and thirties, have taken to utilizing homestay platforms like Airbnb where owners or tenants offer up their secondary or even primary properties for tourists or vacationing guests...
...It’s an ideal option for many, often less expensive and more homey than a hotel; cleaner and more amenable than a motel. Property owners also get a chance to make some extra pocket money with little effort beyond providing a key code and some clean towels. But what if this seemingly win-win scenario is too good to be true? What if the benevolent homeowner has nefarious intentions? After all, what sort of person opens their home to complete strangers in the first place?
In writer-director Chad Werner’s A Perfect Host (adapted from a story by Werner and Emily Hiott and listed in some locations as Adonis Complex), these unsettling potentialities take center stage when longtime friends Avery (Kately Marie Marshall) and Sam (Jeff McQuitty) arrive at the cozy, isolated lakeside house they’ve booked with friends Becca (Hiott) and Cory (Jon Michael Sampson). While waiting for their friends to show, Sam takes the opportunity to finally talk to Avery about his feelings for her in the hopes that the two of them might become something more. Avery isn’t in the same emotional place as Sam, however, and there’s hints that a past trauma may have something to do with that, and the two end up in an awkward argument. Their spat is quickly interrupted by the sudden arrival of Tad (Brady Burleson Johnson), their host. Though both Sam and Avery are uneasy by his presence, not to mention his fanatic devotion to fitness, they can’t quite find a way to ask him to stay out of his own house, even if they did book it for the weekend. Tad continues to interrupt their vacation at every turn with increasingly odd behavior until Avery and Sam find themselves not just annoyed but unnerved. It won’t be long before they discover just how deep and depraved Tad’s health obsession is, and that in this life, there’s no such thing as perfect.
There’s a sense of realism to A Perfect Host that I appreciate. With a great deal of horror films, characters make choices that have the viewer shouting expletives at the screen to convey their frustration with the characters’ stupid, illogical decisions. There’s a certain element of fun to that, in knowing that we are smarter than those blockheads in the movie and that we would never do something so foolish, but it can be grating to witness again and again. Sam and Avery, happily, behave in ways that many socially conscious people, including crafty horror viewers, would. They’re polite towards Tad without being overly friendly, placating each of his unexpected appearances with enough pleasantries so as not to seem rude, but careful not to widen the circle too much to allow Tad to join them. Not that it matters to Tad, who worms his way in through the cracks in Sam and Avery’s friendship, widening them until everything threatens to crumble.
It’s an excellent touch on Werner’s part to write Sam and Avery this way as it makes the whole situation that much more relatable. Everyone is afraid of offending someone these days; we’re hyper-aware of triggers and potential social landmines and no one wants to be accused of being rude or disrespectful. This consciousness, whether good or ill or somewhere in between, is so pervasive it can even hinder us from speaking up or speaking out in situations that are becoming uncomfortable or dangerous lest we appear ignorant or insulting, and the viewer senses that inner turmoil with Sam and Avery as they navigate their increasingly bizarre interactions with Tad the fitness freak. This believable character trait also carries through when it becomes obvious that Tad is not overly-friendly, and Sam and Avery take precautions to protect themselves and figure what exactly is going on at this seemingly picturesque lake house.
Credit is due to Marshall and McQuitty for grounding their performances in the real, and to Johnson for his turn as the manic Tad; he delivers sickly-sweet good-boy charm and delusional, unhinged creep in equal measure. A Perfect Host is a tight, claustrophobic film, the kind that doesn’t work with committed actors and believable performances, and this trio succeeds in conveying Sam, Avery, and Tad as people and not just characters. Director Werner knows how to craft atmosphere while still moving the story along, aided with some ace cinematography from Brooks Birdsall. The camera often lingers on a nature shot or a seemingly random household object while non-diegetic sound completely displaced from the image ratchets up the tension in a palpable way. It’s a tried and true tactic to conjure dread in the viewer, and it’s much more effective for this story than the occasional jump scares that sometimes work but mostly just feel out of place in the narrative, but with a limited budget there’s limited tricks one can rely on.
That being said, Werner comes up with some creative techniques to arouse suspense. Quick cuts, well-placed lighting and sheer screens combine for the most harrowing sequence in the film, one to yelp and cringe at but that doesn’t actually show the moment of violence itself, let alone a single drop of blood. What this film understands and uses to its advantage is that what’s not seen is often far more terrifying than what is seen, as the mind will fill in the blanks with all sorts of horrific possibilities. There are a few flaws, naturally--not all of the humor lands and the ending needs a little more work to feel truly earned, but you can tell Werner understands film and knows his horror. More specifically, he knows the horror community and does what he can to tailor a believable, moody film that digs at a realistic fear for fans of the genre, and he wraps it up with solid, haunting camerawork and an 80’s-esque synth score for good measure.
A bit like Funny Games (1997) with a dash of Creep (2014), A Perfect Host is a well shot, eerie little film that uses a traditional horror structure to poke at contemporary fears and anxieties. While it may not be the sleekest film of the year, it’s clear that Werner has a good eye for horror. I’m curious to see if he’ll continue to bring more to the genre after this initial entry. Though it could have used a little more polish on some of the writing and editing, A Perfect Host is a film worth being proud of, and of seeing. It may not be perfect, but it sure packs a punch.
Vacation with A Perfect Host when it releases on VOD from Uncork'd Entertainment on February 4th, 2020.
By Craig Ranallo