★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Smash that Like Button! Two travel YouTubers on a mission to bolster their diminishing viewer interest visit a vacation rental cabin with an eccentric “superhost” who transforms from an off-putting oddball to imminent threat over their vacation stay. This movie has inertia like a locomotive covered in razor blades, with a near-perfect build of tension and release.
Directed by Brandon Christensen
Wow. This movie had me exhausted by the end. Perhaps it’s because, as a web-developer myself, who probably too often obsesses about how to grow our viewership, I can identify closely with Teddy (Osric Chao) and Claire (Sara Canning) as the two dating bloggers whose site “Superhost!” has been shedding viewers, and are sensing their dreams slip away. For those of you who haven’t used Airbnb or Vrbo rentals, the term Superhost is the term applied to reliable excellence in vacation lodge hosting, reserved for those who have repeatedly received top marks from their guests.
Reeling a bit from having to deal with an angry host from their previous unfavorable review, the couple brainstorms how to reinvigorate their viewership to their channel. It’s a frustrating process, as Claire fears that they may have peaked in their popularity, and she is unsure as to whether they should amp up their energy or mellow out. Unknown to Claire, a B-story has Teddy preparing to drop a marriage proposal, which he has been secretly sharing with their members.
This remote contemporary cabin is at first unremarkable, but it has awesome views through a huge living room array of windows. Also, it has a lot of security cameras all over the house. They are being watched. What’s more, the house proprietor, Rebecca (Gracie Gillam) is a bit… odd. She shows up at odd and inappropriate moments, wild-eyed and grinning. When putting her on-camera for their traditional interview with their hosts, she shrieks at the camera as a curious preparation method and then gives off-kilter responses to their questions.
Claire recognizes this as a potential goldmine. Change the emphasis to the vacation home and focus on the nutter who owns it. Teddy is more circumspect, but Claire insists that making Rebecca the focal point of this episode will be the kind of thing that their viewers will eat up. But Claire has forgotten that all their actions, and conversations, are being monitored by Rebecca.
A reminder of the volatility of their predicament comes back in the form of Vera (Barbara Crampton), who is so enraged and aggrieved that she got a bad review on their site, that she has tracked them down to this cabin. A volatile cocktail of threats and innuendo follows between Vera, the couple, and Rebecca. Vera gets run off the property, leaving a maniacally grinning Rebecca trying to make sure that she gets a good review from the Vlog.
Teddy becomes increasingly alarmed that things just don’t feel right, and they should cut their losses and leave. Claire wants to stick it out and continue to shoot the increasing strangeness of Rebecca. But it’s too late. They realize that there’s much more to Rebecca than they initially thought, and that’s when all of the pressure of the plot comes to a head.
The first two acts do a fine job of establishing the characters and winding up the tension. The third act is a wild release of gore and violence that surprised me quite a bit. Some of the practical effects are both old-school but hugely convincing. There is a brutal knife through the face moment that I won’t forget any time soon. The plot logic holds up. The cat and mouse game plays out really well, and the ending is… oh, I dare not spoil it, but it’s nerve-wracking.
It’s a tiny cast, and they all are spot-on. The story satisfies my #1 rule. Do I care about the fate of our protagonists? Yes! Are the characters multi-dimensional and behave in a way that makes sense? Yes! Is the villain a colorful and menacing psycho? YES! The compact and comprehensible story is scripted very well. The chemistry between Teddy and Claire feels like a real couple. The proposal scene was full of wonderful little acting moments of awkwardness and dramatic beats that added some great texture to the characters.
The only demerit that I have for Superhost is that it strongly resembles other films that I really like: Creep. In a weirdo showdown between Mark Duplass and Gracie Gillam, Duplass might take it on points, but both of these characters give off “stay away” vibes, but there is just enough motivation for the protagonists to stick around and see what happens next. Strange and curious gives way to panic and fear, but that is the dramatic irony that the audience can sense. Creep‘s shaky-cam first-person experience makes the movie feel more personal, that it’s you who is under threat. In Superhost, we get better protagonists. I’d call it a draw, as both are exemplary in their depictions of a person you just have to watch no matter how cringeworthy they are.
It also borrows some of the plot elements of The Rental (another film I very much enjoyed) in that it utilizes the premise that the rental unit is under constant surveillance, and that all activities within the house are being monitored. Also, a sinister property manager was in The Rental as well, though the differences in tone between these films are pretty significant. There was nothing kooky about the villain in The Rental.
Brandon Christensen is becoming a reliable staple in the horror film festival circuit. His previous movies Z (2017) and Still/Born (2019) were both well received on previous festivals (both have a Metacritic rating of 63), and both showed at previous Popcorn Frights and he is continuing to elevate his craft. This was the World Premiere for Superhost, and it has already been slated for a Shudder exclusive run.
Superhost is not yet rated, but if it gets submitted to the MPAA it will certainly be rated R for violence, gore, and language. Don’t be surprised if this ends up on my best of 2021 list at the end of the year!