I want to preface this review by suggesting that if you already planned on seeing An Ideal Host, skip this review and just hit play or go to the theater. I think the film operates best with the viewer going in cold, and given the thumbnail on the site and the description, that seems to be by design. The film does a great job at toying with audience expectations based on the above and I have to say it was hands down one of my favorite discoveries of the Chattanooga Film Fest.
But spoiler warnings and all that:
An Ideal Host wasn’t the film I sat down to watch Saturday night. I was originally planning to check out the secret screening, but having caught that at Sundance (and reviewing it), I needed a plan B. This brings me to one of the biggest strengths of digital film fests: the ability to pivot in a situation such as this, and simply start something else to watch. When you’re watching something at a film fest, it is basically based on a synopsis or a director and you don’t always know what’s going to unspool in front of you until after you’ve gotten seated. Given filmmakers are usually in attendance at IRL fest, sneaking out is usually not an option, even if it is for a positive reason such as this. In only a matter of minutes I was out of the secret screening and back into the film list and remembered An Ideal Host from the rather unassuming description, involving something about an apocalyptic dinner party, and based on that alone I was off on my new cinematic journey.
Host is an Aussie indie film that has our hipster couple, Liz and Jackson, inviting their childhood friends and ther super awkward +1 to their new farm to bear witness to their rehearsed, totally awkward, impromptu engagement. The film stumbles a bit as it lays the groundwork for the movie you’re possibly expecting. We find out someone invited Daisy, their friend who fell out of the tight knit group, possibly due to alcoholism and the loss of her father. It’s when this storyline reaches its ultimate conflict as Liz finally confronts Daisy over dinner that the filmmakers switch gears on the audience and the film begins riffing heavily off John Carpenter’s The Thing. Turns out there’s an alien invasion making its trial run in this small Australian town, and if they can just get everyone taken over in this area, world domination is definitely in the cards. You can’t tell if someone’s been hijacked and the small creatures are passed mouth to mouth via kissing — in a nod to the pandemic paranoia in which this was filmed.
So that transitory second act then compounds that paranoia, as we discover after they apprehend one possessed guest, that another is among them, undetected. There’s even a great riff on the blood and copper wire scene, while the attendees play spin the bottle. This basically has the filmmakers riding this concept till the wheels fall off, budget be damned, into a third act that had me just gobsmacked in bloody awe. Director Robert Woods goes for the gory goods as we are treated to some spectacularly gruesome set-pieces that have Liz channeling her OCD rage from an evening gone not according to her plan, towards the alien invaders, to a resoundingly hilariously goretastic effect.
An Ideal Host is the rare film that weaponizes audience expectations of festival fare — both budgetary and performance-wise — and uses them to subvert and annihilate them by the time that third act hits the fan. It’s something that will have you re-evaluating things that might have felt clumsy or rough the first watch through as the bigger picture here really fills in the gaps and shows the steady direction (and purposeful misdirection) of the filmmakers. I am not going to lie, I wasn’t ready for An Ideal Host, but it was one helluva gory ride I can’t recommend enough. Simply put, these kinds of experiences are why I love festivals. Being able to watch a film like this blind, and have it be able to work its magic on me, unencumbered by reviews or hearsay and just be a damn good genre flick.