AN IDEAL HOST *** Australia 2020 Dir: Robert Woods. 84 mins
From a witty script by Tyler Jacob Jones, debuting feature director Robert Woods (also nabbing credits for music, cinematography, editing and visual effects) has made an engaging riff on Carpenter’s THE THING within a broader satire of social mores. It follows a minor trend for dinner-party-based horror films in the wake of THE PERFECT HOST, THE INVITATION and THE DINNER PARTY.
The playful approach extends to a succession of title fonts as hostess Nadia Collins frets over the form, style and very specific scheduling of her imminent housewarming party. She and wealthy other half Evan Williams have settled back into their childhood town via a “slice of paradise” in the form of a lakeside dairy farm. By welcoming back old friends, they simultaneously revive old grudges, enduring jealousy, festering secrets and latent homophobia. More so when the party is crashed by alcoholic, misanthropic school friend Naomi Brockwell, with ex-boyfriend (Daniel Buckle) and his partner in tow.
The long-delayed grudge match proves a fitting setting for the gradual realisation that the estranged friends are not whom they appear to be. The embittered Brockwell cottons on to the sinister changes in the peers she has come to resent, something transferring from person to person while Woods’ score knowingly apes the ominous beat of Morricone’s THE THING soundtrack. A dinner party awkwardly reuniting those who have long lost contact, and built around the stigma-laden business of coming back “home”, is an exercise in paranoia to start with – so the introduction of body-jumping alien beings (with CGI tendrils and a deafening INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS-inspired shriek) feels like a natural extension.
Not all of it lands: Collins, afforded a fun punchline, is terrific though the first half overplays the strained relations to the point where almost everyone becomes a slightly grating cartoon. The more serious second half generates some straight suspense and bone-breaking, skin-peeling gore, with the high stakes more adeptly balanced with the humour of alien-hijacked characters moaning at each other for messing up the world domination plot. It’s eccentric enough to be memorable and performed with vigour. And as with several horror films this year, its Carpenter-influenced narrative arc and dialogue resonate more deeply as the plot unfolds : “It means one of us is infected – we have no way of knowing…”
Review by Steven West