Far be it from me to dispute the status of the legendary film, but what has always impressed me about that singular tale is its setting: the quaint, rural, and roadside Bates Motel. In the era of its production, such destinations rich in off-the-beaten-path Americana weren’t regarded as being locations involving such horrific circumstance. Certainly, there were press accounts of seedy dealings that no doubt took place in such spots, but these road stops were largely considered safe havens from the evils of the big city or the sprawling interstate. The average individual likely considered himself safe spending the night there, and it’s this narrative juxtaposition that gives Psycho its enduring punch.
Since those days, our society has evolved. While hotels and motels are still out there for the traveling consumer, venues like bread-and-breakfast’s (BnB’s) have popped up with local homeowners renting out a room (or three) to weary tourists wishing for a more homegrown event. Just this past year the wifey and I reached well outside our comfort zone and booked our first Airbnb – an entire (small) residence for our use on a holiday season excursion. I’ll admit that it felt a bit odd, at first, staying in what clearly was someone else’s dwelling (when they were in town), but it was infinitely more relaxing having that kind of leg room to call your own … for a few days, at least.
Because such places are becoming a favorite amongst diehard travelers, there’s been an incredible sub-economy grow out of the hospitality industry, one taking advantage of the technology available to all of us via social media. Lodgers will travel to these stops, they’ll spend a few days, and then they’ll share their review publicly for all to see. Lo and behold, these influencers (as they’re called) have been able to turn that singular passion of theirs into their day jobs as Silicon Valley has given every reviewer and storyteller a means to monetize these videos for profit. Yes, I’m oversimplifying the amount of work required to be successful, but rest assured that – right now – there are people doing this for a living … and many of them have never been happier.
Well, 2021’s Superhost cleverly meshes the new (Airbnb) with the old (Hitchcock’s film) to come up with a dynamic renovation on the old formula. This Old House? Meet MTV Cribs! With blood! It has thrills, chills, and spills aplenty; and it all comes together with three great performances of some young leads with even a little bit extra thrown in by way by a fourth performer who just happens to be one of the vanguard performers of modern horror.
Are you ready to check in?
From the film’s promotional materials:
“Teddy and Claire are travel vloggers who run a channel called ‘SUPERHOST’ where they travel and share their experiences in and around vacation homes, and until recently, had become successful doing it. With a dwindling subscriber count, they find the perfect opportunity to create content that people want to see when they meet Rebecca, the host of their most recent trip. Slowly they start to realize that something isn’t right with Rebecca, and as they investigate it further, they unlock a horrifying truth. She doesn’t just want a great review, she wants something far worse.”
On its most basic level, Superhost is little more than a Psycho re-imaging. (I don’t say that as an insult; if you’re gonna steal, then steal from the best.) It may not have the depth or the nuance dating back to the work of Anthony Perkins in a role he became known for, but it does cleverly update the story to the modern age by framing it through the eyes of its two narrators: Teddy (played by Osric Chau) and Claire (Sara Canning) star as vloggers racing against time to save both their professional and personal relationships from collapse. Before you know it, they’re joined in a race for their lives, as well, when host Rebecca (Gracie Gillam) turns out to have a thirst for murder if she doesn’t get the attention she feels she and her isolated home deserve.
There’s a bit more of a big reveal surrounding Rebecca and her past (I won’t spoil it) but suffice it to say that she’s clearly disturbed. At first, she appears to be harmlessly quirky, and audiences might think of her perfectly at home as any of the secondary players in either David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. She’s a bit slow on the uptake, taking a few extra seconds to consider what she’s heard. Perhaps she’s even a bit overly dramatic in the manner in which she speaks casually. Indeed, we’ve all likely known someone like dear Rebecca … let’s just hope they weren’t secretly as homicidal as this ‘Superhost’ turns out to be.
As the film’s villain, Gillam cuts from a cloth different than Perkins did in Psycho. Though both had their respective emotional hang-ups, Perkin’s Norman Bates was never effuse, brusque, or loud in any way; he was tall, prim, and exceedingly proper at every opportunity. (Exactly how mother would’ve wanted it, dare I say?) In Gillam’s hands, Rebecca ticks and tocks like a clock on the wall that might be slowly failing. Though her eyes give the impression of one occasionally lost in thought, you’re never quite sure she even heard the question you asked much less is processing the information needed. It’s this coolly calculated unpredictability that makes her character a delight to behold.
All of that said, Superhost is no complicated character study. I think Teddy, Claire, and Rebecca intersect in exactly the way anyone watching expects, and Christensen utilizes an effective blue-color approach to knowing what to reveal when and how much tension to ratchet as a result. Essentially, what audiences get here is everything one expects from a visual and vicarious thrill ride: you know it won’t be long before blood is spilled, and the excitement is trying to figure out which ill-timed decision is going to be the one that causes Rebecca’s psyche to finally crack so that she can show her true colors. Though I left the film with a few small questions, none of these open ends impeded me from enjoying the story whatsoever. Sure, a bit more may’ve been nice, but you get what you get when you purchase your ticket.
Like Psycho, Superhost also makes the best of its storied location. Rebecca’s house is an idyllic cottage in the forest – the perfect romantic escape for a young couple – one that could’ve easily been ripped from the pages of any travel magazine promoting storied destinations. Though it isn’t a haunted house, the lodge gradually becomes another character as its various corners slowly reveal state-of-the-art in-home video surveillance, a door with an ever benign ‘do not enter’ sign, and a main bathroom’s toilet with the grimmest clog imaginable. Its sparsely decorated walls and its perfectly clean floors are veritable canvasses just waiting to be filled by something. Rarely has emptiness felt so sterile yet oppressive.
Also, I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that Superhost brings in one of Horror’s more celebrated players in a small role: scream queen Barbara Crampton shows up as a homeowner with an axe to grind (well, not literally, bad choices of words?) against Teddy and Claire. It would seem their internet expose into her lodging has left her in dire straits, and she shows up seeking to extract her own form of retribution on the young couple. It’s a fabulous misdirect on Christensen’s part: casting Crampton (a pretty big name in Horror, mind you) served up a great curveball. I was honestly watching closely for this story to go in a completely different direction once I saw her onscreen, but can you guess my surprise when she … oh, wait … I won’t spoil that, either.
Lastly, I’d also be remiss if I failed to report that the picture has been the recipient of some great praise while appearing on the festival circuit. In 2021, the flick scored the ‘Best Feature Film’ award from Miami’s Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Also in 2021, Christensen took home the ‘Best Director’ award and Clayton Moore snagged the ‘Best Cinematography’ trophy from the Sin City Horror Fest. Hats off to a job well done.
I find it refreshing when films deliver on the promises they make, and – in that respect – I suppose one might argue that Superhost played it a bit too safe, a bit too conventional, and maybe even a bit too predictable. Still, all of this works well because it’s pure showmanship exquisitely crafted from start-to-finish. It’s concocted with just enough panache from its creative ensemble. I didn’t sweat such small stuff. I’m came for the weekend, and I – unlike others – got out with my life. Sometimes, that’s enough. Plus, I guess I’m a sucker for good cynicism and am thankfully still young enough to enjoy a classic movie line like, “I’m not a hero. I’m a vlogger.” Well delivered, Osric Chau. Well done.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJE Films provided me with a complimentary streaming link for Superhost (2021) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.