As the filmic world adjusts to a new, morphing landscape, where the theatrical experience blends seamlessly into the streaming world, and where micro-narrative Tiktok videos become high art alongside seven hour Béla Tarrmasterpieces, the expectation that a narrative film needs to be around eighty minutes long needs to be discarded. Sure, there’s the desired distinction between a short film and a feature film that is required for awards consideration, but the average viewer is less concerned about which category a film fits into, and instead, is more focused on whether it’s good or not.
Take a look at the 2020 horror genre for a moment and you’ll see that the effective Shudder horror film, Host, managed to weave a tense and terrifying tale over an economic runtime of 57 minutes. In the midst of a state wide lockdown, Perth’s Revelation Film Festival launched the online festival Couched, replete with a line-up that featured the live horror film, In the Shadow it Waits, a chilling slice of terror that brought immersive theatre to the living room via a Zoom session. The whole experience lasted around 45 minutes, and left the viewer positively shaken by the expertly staged film.
These two horror films thrived on their brevity, eschewing genre tropes and expectations in an act that allowed the tangible tension to flourish in the moment. With precious little downtime, momentum was maintained and a solid viewing experience was created.
I mention this not as a pointed criticism of the film I’m reviewing – Robert Woods’ delightful pot luck genre flick An Ideal Host – but more to help remind newer filmmakers that they don’t need to fill a ninety minute runtime with extraneous elements that are implemented merely to pad out the films length.
With that in mind, An Ideal Host is a film of two halves. The first being a routine mumblecore-esque friend dramedy, where partners Liz (Nadia Collins) and Jackson (Evan Williams) are busy prepping their new home for the arrival of their friends for a micro-managed, hyper-organised dinner event that’ll culminate in the ‘surprise’ engagement request from Jackson to Liz. Writer Tyler Jacob Jones injects their script with a bright level of whimsy and charm, giving Collins and Williams substantial material to chew on where they can create two genuinely engaging characters, allowing the otherwise tired scene-setting beginning to feel mildly refreshing.
Woods artistic flourishes with the title sequence helps creates a unique vibe for An Ideal Host, with the titles changing style each time Liz sets and redresses the dining table as she decides on the mood of the dinner. It’s in these early moments that they hyper-focused Liz accentuates the ‘meaning’ of the title – is she being an ideal host? Is Liz operating in service of her guests, all the while making the foundations for a memorable engagement experience?
As friends arrive, with an unexpected alcoholic appendage in tow, the machinations of Liz and Jackson’s planning kicks off, only for unexpected hiccups to throw the whole night into disarray. Before too long, there’s infighting, unwanted romantic advances, and a glass or two broken, all the while another unexpected guest is sitting in the midst of the dinner party.
And while the frenetic planning of the dinner event does create the illusion of time quickly passing, as is often the case with genre films, the first half hour is relegated to character building, giving micronarratives to body fodder for the inevitable enemy that’ll slay one character after another. As such, despite its intended charm, the opening act is a bit of a slog.
Performances across the board are entertaining, with Tristan McInnes being particularly impressive as Jon, an aloof Grindr date with an unexpected profession, and Nadia Collins asserting her skills as a bona fide leading actor who absolutely nails the ‘final girl’ role in the finale.
An Ideal Host delivers a smorgasbord of pot luck dishes, swaying from mumblecore comedy, to horror, to sci-fi, and back again. When the genre twist kicks in, and a rural homage of The Thing unfurls, that’s when Woods and Jones’ intentions become clear, and their comfort with schlocky horror tropes comes into fruition.
Yet, it’s here that the pressure of creating a ninety-ish-minute film needs to be discarded. Buried within An Ideal Host is a stellar fifty minute horror film that gets in, does its job, and gets out, leaving you satiated and excited. But, as it is, scenes drag on a fraction too long, with technical flourishes that expose Woods directorial intentions both for good and bad that balance each other out. (A one-shot scene feels obtrusive and extraneous, especially when the cameraman is clearly seen in the highly reflective windows of the room, while the third act early-Peter Jackson-esque gore closes the film on a giddy high.)
There’s a charm to Robert Woods direction that marks him as a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and Tyler Jacob Jones script shows a clear understanding and appreciation of a wide variety of genres. For the patient and dedicated genre-fiends out there, An Ideal Host will eventually scratch the right itch, you just have to be a little patient for those moments to arrive. When viewed with an audience (as most of these late night horror flicks should be), An Ideal Host’s flaws will subside amongst a sea of laughter and gasps.
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