The Host is an example of what happens if you put multiple films into the meat grinder, chop them up and compress the pieces together. Incorporating tropes across genres as well as referencing specific films, Andy Newbery’s film shows little originality or stylistic élan but does offer an enjoyable narrative and plenty of homages for the seasoned film viewer.
To reveal all of the films referenced would be a spoiler, but The Host echoes such work as “Audition,” “Layer Cake,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Chinatown,” working as a weird cross between organized crime thriller and psychological horror. Most prominently, the film is deeply indebted to the work of Alfred Hitchcock right from the start. Opening with Doctor Hobson (Derek Jacobi, “Tomb Raider”) a sympathetic psychiatrist whose presence echoes “Spellbound,” the film then delivers an animated title sequence similar to those created by Saul Bass for the “Master of Suspense.” The animated titles recall “Vertigo” especially, while also providing a prologue for the film as a whole. Composer Wan Pin Chu’s music is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “North By Northwest.” Most prominently, the film has many nods to “Psycho.” The first scene after the titles features an illicit liaison, there is a large financial deposit and a low-level employee in a trusted position takes an opportunity. Later a way-out-of-their-depth character on a journey is intimidated by an authority figure, much like Janet Leigh in “Psycho.” While in rented accommodation, there is an invitation to a simple meal and a certain amount of voyeurism as well as earlier trauma and some interesting storage. Audience expectations are subverted; we also see amateur sleuthing by a character in search of their sibling and some rather incompetent undercover work. Meanwhile, secrets lurk in the basement in suitably Freudian fashion. Finally, just in case the homage wasn’t clear, a key character is called Vera, echoing Vera Miles who appeared in “Psycho.”
Not that Newbery and screenwriters Finola Geraghty, Brendan Bishop, Laurence Lamers, and Zachary Weckstein only reference Mr. Hitchcock. Jacobi’s Doctor Hobson bookends the film, the flashback structure being only the first nod to film noir. The ultra-modern London and Amsterdam settings place the film in the neo-noir generic tradition, with shots of cityscapes intercut with the hidden corners of a 21st century metropolis. The production design by Felix Coles is evocative but not overdone, from the cheap and cramped London apartment of Robert Atkinson (Mike Beckingham, “Redwood”) that contrasts with the expansive bank where he works, to the claustrophobic decor of the casino and the mysterious Amsterdam home of Vera Tribbe (Maryam Hassouni, “Manslaughter”), which could be a modern equivalent of a Gothic mansion with its spiral staircase, high-ceilinged rooms and private art gallery.
Robert moves through these carefully designed spaces, a noir protagonist if there ever was one. Robert is a weak-willed man plagued by addictions including smoking, drinking, married women and, most dangerously, gambling. A deal with organized crime is only his latest faux pas, as one unfortunate choice leads to another and another. The fear of castration runs throughout this film: Robert is equated to a male prostitute, only fit for women’s pleasure; he becomes infantile and helpless; he is threatened with a large blade that is both phallic yet also vaginal in its shape. Sexual perversity rears its penis, I mean head (sorry, Freudian slip), in a manner that recalls “Chinatown” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Continuing with the noir tropes, there is an alluring but mysterious woman, and significantly the film equates water with danger. Streetlamps reflect off the glistening surface of the Amsterdam canals, and a swimming pool serves as both a temptation and a threat.
These generic tropes are ladled onto a plot that rather clumsily provides characters with unhappy histories. Robert and his younger brother Steve (Dougie Poynter, “Double Date”) are both scarred by the trauma of their “brute” father. As we learn more about Vera, it becomes clear that she has her own tragic backstory which manifests in some interesting ways. And in a flashback sequence, we see the violence that led Jun Hui (Suan-Li Ong, “Justice League”) into her current situation. These different elements are an uncomfortable mix of generic tropes. One minute we are dealing with social realism and addiction, the next we have crime and revenge, then later we have gothic horror. The transitions between these are rather jarring and not very convincing, but there is still efficient storytelling here. There are some nice touches such as buckets that foreshadow a future development, and a mobile phone runs out of battery at a non-crucial moment, which you don’t see enough of in films. There is some dark humor and the film is pleasingly transnational, featuring British and Dutch locations as well as cast and characters from both countries as well as China and the United States. The film can be read as a transnational neo-noir, two major powers on the world stage moving pieces on the chessboard of two less significant nations, not realizing that other forces move beneath the board in, again, fine Freudian fashion.
The transnational nature of the film does have the annoyance of Dutch characters sometimes speaking Dutch to each other but just as often speaking English. In a year when the Korean film “Parasite” won the Oscar for Best Picture, the one-inch barrier of subtitles seems more easily surmountable. Bigger problems are that patriarchal authority is shown to be both a fundamental problem and yet also the solution, and a reference to (presumably) the Second World War feels very out of place. There is a repeated device of buzzes at the door to interrupt key moments of tension. Once again echoing “Psycho,” there is a rushed explanation in the final act but, whereas the explanation in Hitchcock’s film seemed to invite skepticism, this moment in The Host feels forced and undeserved. Interestingly, The Host uses the figure of the psychiatrist to offer a form of amelioration for the victim rather than trying to explain the psychosis. Unfortunately, this panacea is only the first part of a double coda at the end of the film, the other half being nonsensical and silly.
Of the various questions raised by The Host, the most glaring may be what the hell movie is this? Answer: It is a film for film fans. There is a pleasure to be found in spotting the references, echoes and similarities to previous work and predicting how the plot will turn out in this twisty pastiche. It is also entertaining to see a new filmmaker paying homage to the greats of yesteryear, and there is every reason to believe that Andy Newbery can become a great filmmaker in the future.