Released Nov. 30, 2018
Unrated (equal to rated R for thematic elements, imagery, mild violence, and brief nudity) – 1hr 33min
Directed by Derrick Sims
Starring Suilma Rodriguez, Janis Duley, Chase Ryan Jeffery, Andersyn Van Kuren
When single mother Julie (Rodriguez) returns to her hometown to settle her late grandmother’s estate, she finds hospitality in short supply, save her grandma’s friend Frances (Duley) who offers to let her and her daughter (Van Kuren) stay at her sprawling manor. Cynical of her host’s good graces, Julie begins to suspect dark secrets and duplicitous motives lie within the walls of the stately home.
The Perfect Host alternates frequently between two distinct identities – one of a brooding and atmospheric slowburn horror film and also that of a melancholic dramatic indie character study. The film endeavors to weave them together into a unified whole, but the presentation largely keeps them as two separate entities. The overall result feels more like a literary form of storytelling than a cinematic one.
The Perfect Host is bold enough to declare itself a Southern Gothic tale right in its title, so the first question is whether or not it qualifies. So here, we have:
- – a Southern setting
- – a flawed and alienated protagonist
- – an aging antebellum mansion
- – unironic use of the word ‘kin’
- – belief in superstitions and charms
- – old white men staring threateningly
- – corruption of innocence
- – a nighttime scene in a cemetery
- – a mysterious forbidden room
- – children allowed in a bar while their parents guzzle beer
Ok – it all checks out. The Perfect Host is indeed a Southern Gothic tale. Now, whether or not it’s any good is where things get complicated real quick.
At the center of the story is Julie, as she’s featured in about 90% of the movie. The film is built around an examination of her as a person, yet that examination is far more interested in posing questions about her than it is in answering any of them. What we get is a portrait of a contentious and unlikable human being with an undoubtedly complex past that remains frustratingly inaccessible to the narrative. She winds up at the home of ‘the perfect host’ Frances only after being kicked out of the house of an unspecified relative who has clearly had enough of whatever unnamed transgressions she’s committed.
In fact, the most notable thing about Julie, apart from her highly questionable parenting skills and absolute lack of good humor, is that everything about her goes unspecified and unnamed. It’s as if she’s so jilted and frigid that she won’t even let the audience get to know her, let alone anyone else. As mentioned earlier, this elusive characterization seems, in style, to be better suited for the printed page than the screen. It’s certainly a challenging approach in the depiction of a main character, but it’s about as enjoyable as being forced to interact on a personal level with an unpleasant coworker. She might be sympathetic after all, but it’s impossible to know and really difficult to care.
The unorthodox presentation aside, The Perfect Host is a very low-budget endeavor, and looks fantastic for that being the case. The direction is very sure-handed and professional while the production design squeezed every penny and then some to create a film that is polished beyond its modest funding (the opening sequence depicting a funeral in a graveyard shown entirely in silhouette is particularly impressive). Composer Cameron Chambers delivers a Hollywood quality score that sometimes threatens to steal the show, but absolutely nails both the Southern and the Gothic identities of the movie. The acting is hit-and-miss, but Suilma Rodriguez deserves some credit for conveying the existence of a hidden complexity to the character of Julie, even if that character is maddeningly opaque and tough to be around. Also, the sound design is pretty rough, with the dialogue being drowned out at times and usually at key moments – this is the one place where the film clearly shows its budget constraints.
It cannot be said that The Perfect Host: A Southern Gothic Tale offers up an amateurish or trite experience, but with its glacial pacing and impermeable protagonist coupled with an utterly bleak atmosphere, it is a difficult movie to endure and perhaps best suited for devoted fans of this specific genre of storytelling. Good thing then that it’s so prominently included in the title.