The Airbnb phenomenon has led to its share of horror stories: trashed houses, drug-fuelled orgies, and rooms Jackson Pollocked in assorted bodily fluids. But these all posit the guests as the cause of the mayhem. Brandon Christensen’s Superhost flips this dynamic in a social media savvy spin on the careworn cabin in the woods formula. Here, its the host that poses the threat, and her guests are going to be lucky to live long enough to give a bad review.
YouTube Vloggers Claire and Teddy (Sara Canning and Ozric Chau) have suffered a downturn in subscribers to their channel, in which they review Airbnb properties and their owners. Teddy hopes his secret plan to propose to Claire on their latest jaunt will have a positive effect on their viewing figures. When they get to their stylish mountain getaway Claire spots an opportunity in the eccentric form of their host Rebecca (Gracie Gillam), a cute but distinctly offbeat young woman who couldn’t be more accommodating. It doesn’t take long for Rebecca’s twitchy attention to start becoming more sinister.
Unlike many recent horrors based on technology and how we interact through it, such as V/H/S, Host, Unfriended and Spree, Superhost acknowledges its format, but isn’t beholden to its function and aesthetics. There are elements of found footage as Claire and Teddy shoot footage, and their to-camera exhortations to ‘like and subscribe’ will be familiar to anyone who spends time on YouTube, but these are in service of a good old-fashioned thriller with a modern twist. Both Airbnb and YouTube are emblematic of a new kind of social currency, where a need for ‘likes’ and ‘clicks’, good reviews, and online influence has replaced community standing and peer group reputation. Christensen uses this as a contextual framework and, wisely given the limited cast, focuses on character. Canning and Chau are very good as the bickering couple, torn between their viewing figures and their safety; their less than united front increasing the tension even beyond the excruciating awkwardness of their needy host’s antics.
But a good psycho horror hinges on the unhinged, and Gracie Gillam excels in a role that could easily come off as laughable, or too cartoonish. Gillam pitches it just right, tuning Rebecca’s psychosis incrementally, but raising more red flags than a Communist party picnic. When a seemingly friendly face is introduced by way of a jump scare, you know something is bound to be off, but even without the shock tactics, it takes only a few seconds to register that something dark hides behind the smile. Like Mark Duplass in Creep, with which Superhost shares a laser-focused eye for escalating social discomfort, she’s just a few degrees too friendly and overly eager to please. As well as Gillam’s gloriously off-kilter work, Christensen’s writing shines, as Rebecca’s behaviour stays just about restrained enough that Claire and Teddy would agree to grin and bear it rather than take off. The time they correctly decide enough is enough is exactly the point at which everything tips into chaos, thanks in part to a lovely cameo from horror icon Barbara Crampton as an embittered former subject of their show.
There are few surprises in Superhost, and it certainly won’t be the most overtly violent movie streaming on Shudder this year (Indonesian cinema has you covered on that front). Instead, Christensen’s beautifully calibrated script and the very capable cast ensure a potent mix of doomed inevitability and agonisingly dark humour. At a lean 85 minutes this stylish, witty, and mordant little horror never comes close to outstaying its welcome.
Available on Shudder from Thu 2 Sep 20201