2020’s Hosts opens on young couple Jack (Neal Ward) and Lucy (Samantha Loxley). They are preparing for Christmas and enjoying each other’s company when strange lights appear in the garden. Pretty soon they have been taken over by some kind of parasitic entity. When the couple arrive at the house of a family of neighbours, they are cold and uncommunicative. Christmas dinner is quickly forgotten, as the pair set about killing and tormenting their unfortunate hosts.
The early scenes with Jack and Lucy feel grounded and their interactions have a genuine warmth. Their casual teasing has the feel of a familiar and good-natured back and forth between old partners. Similarly, the family dynamic between their neighbours has a realistic quality to it that puts us in mind of British kitchen sink gangster movie Down Terrace.
When the good cheer is shattered by a brutally timed and executed piece of violence (a genuinely shocking moment), it feels almost a shame to have left the subtle characterisation behind for the heightened world of kills and thrills. Given that Ward and Loxley are obviously capable of providing such authentic performances, it’s disappointing that they spend the rest of the movie as near-emotionless automata, while the compelling family dynamic is replaced by a whole lot of (admittedly understandable) screaming and crying.
Plot-wise, the frustrating aspects of the film lie in the unclear motivations of our killers. There’s obviously an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers thing going on, especially when more infected(?) humans are discovered later on, but their precise plan is never clarified. Sometimes they seem to be disinterested and alien, other times they can be weirdly sadistic and frankly a bit pervy. The infection of humans happens mainly off-screen, which leads to some creepy situations where the horror is implied rather than shown. However, this can be a double-edged sword as it means that we are never sure of how much danger our principle characters might be in.
Compared to the realism of the earlier scenes, emotional revelations lack heft in later moments. The histrionics are nearly constant and one tearful scene in particular goes on way too long to be emotionally engaging.
Hosts is a low-budget film, but you wouldn’t know to look at it. The effects, both physical and computer-generated, are top notch. The kills are brutal and wince-inducing, and directors Adam Leader and Richard Oakes are obviously expert in providing well-executed creepiness with simple visual elements. In their hands the familiar layout of a council house can become something unsettling and alien, with the attic interior looking as disconcerting as a corridor in a spacecraft.
With some great cinematic execution and strong performances, Hosts is one of the better festive frightfests we’ve seen. However, once the blood starts flying, the plot loses its focus, and at times it can be confused and frustrating. It fails to live up to the promise of its set-up and the compelling performances we see in the first handful of scenes. Nevertheless, it bodes well for future collaborations between the co-directors. Their next project Dirge will be another horror movie, also starring Neal Ward and Nadia Lamin, who will also co-write.