‘Hosts’ and the Subversion of the Family Christmas
As the old song goes, “there’s no place like home for the holidays.” But in the past few years, that phrase has taken on a much more sinister connotation. Heading out to that gathering of family and old friends may well induce more anxiety and dread than the warm feelings usually associated with the season. In our age of extreme political division and the proliferation of conspiracy theorizing, many have discovered that they no longer recognize the people they thought they knew. The 2020 British film Hosts captures these feelings and strikes at the heart of its real-world political and social themes as only great science fiction and horror can: by wrapping them in the trappings of genre. It is a vicious film, and its social commentary has very sharp teeth.
Over the past two years, we have experienced a viral epidemic that—in the United States alone—has claimed more lives than the American Civil War or the Spanish flu of a century ago. We have also experienced a plague of misinformation, hysteria, and conspiracy-mongering that has greatly contributed to that death toll. The groundwork for this disaster has been laid for decades but has ultimately come to a head. Chemtrails, flat-earth, and doomsday prophecy that could once be laughed off as the ravings of the tinfoil hat crowd have morphed into serious and imminent dangers in the current anti-vax and QAnon conspiracy movements. In the process, people we thought we knew as intelligent, levelheaded individuals have become unrecognizable and possibly even dangerous. It is as if they have been possessed by some kind of alien entity. These terrifying facts make Hosts all the more effective, frightening, and for many, horribly relatable.
In the film, Jack (Neal Ward) and his girlfriend Lucy (Samantha Loxley) are invited to Christmas dinner at the home of their neighbor and friend Michael (Frank Jakeman). Before leaving for the gathering, Lucy sees two strange lights float by outside and begs Jack to investigate. He does but finds nothing. He returns inside to find Lucy lying on their bed with a strange light emanating from her mouth. By the time the couple arrives at Michael’s home, something is clearly different about them. They have, in fact, been taken over by malevolent entities in a manner akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. From there, the evil presences within Jack and Lucy carry out a mission to kill, torture, and infect.
What exactly the entities are in Hosts is only obliquely explained. They seem to be demons that have been trapped in the earth and set free by humanity’s destruction of the environment. They are bent on revenge, seeking to punish humanity by taking it over by force. They target the old and sick for death and the young for possession. They use psychological torture to turn friends and family against each other. They spread their lies by mixing them with the truth, making it almost impossible to know which is which. They disguise themselves as humans to gain trust and access before striking and destroying. When Hosts was released to VOD at the height of COVID-19, this all looked eerily familiar.
Though made before the pandemic began, Hosts has clear correlations to the epidemic that was unknowingly just around the corner. The film packs a lot into its 89-minute runtime about family dynamics, religious expression, generational conflict, and environmental damage. These ideas may well have been at the forefront of writer Adam Leader and director Richard Oakes’s minds when they made the film. The parallels to the environment of distrust exacerbated by the pandemic, however, and how misinformation spreads like a virus of its own make the film feel extraordinarily timely.
The most nefarious tool in the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories has been various forms of media. Hosts effectively conveys this fact since the entities use television to turn the possession of a few individuals into an all-out invasion. The demon within Jack is also able to trick Michael’s daughter Lauren (Nadia Lamin) by imitating her boyfriend through her phone.
In reality, social media, YouTube, far-right radio shows, and TV were responsible for the spread of internet lies like the viral “Plandemic” video and the rise of QAnon. My parents used to say to me things like, “you can’t believe everything you see on television.” Today, in the absolute glut of information flowing from dozens of platforms and sources, it feels more like “you can’t believe anything.” Sorting through the noise to get to the truth has become practically impossible. It could even fool the people in our lives we thought were sensible and discerning.
In Hosts, this is best illustrated by the film’s dinner scene. As Michael, his wife Cassie (Jennifer K. Preston), Lauren, and sons Eric (Lee Hunter) and young Ben (Buddy Skelton), sit with Jack and Lucy at the table, the usual awkward family conversation involving a little friendly teasing and embarrassment ensues. This is all interrupted when Lucy suddenly attacks Cassie with a hammer she has taken from Michael’s basement workshop and held hidden under the table during the banter. It is a shocking scene, brutal and bloody, made all the more unbearable by the fact that the filmmakers show us the hammer under the table several minutes before it is finally utilized. It is Hitchcock’s “bomb theory” of suspense in agonizing action.
In the real world, this is me, and thousands of others, scrolling through Facebook to find posts proving that an old friend is now a QAnon true believer. Wham. It is hearing a family member claim that the January 6th Capitol riot was actually an Antifa hoax. Bang. It is learning that a loved one refuses to get vaccinated against a deadly virus because it is “the Mark of the Beast” and “God will protect them.” Slam. It feels like a knife to the heart or a hammer to the head. In some cases, it can even feel like a death in the family. As if the person we once knew is gone, their essence replaced by some kind of unrecognizable entity. Hosts takes this idea to an extreme place to capture the fundamental nature of that feeling.
Hosts slipped by under the radar upon its October 2020 release in the U.S., though it did gain something of an audience in its home country. Even now, as it is available on Shudder, it is rarely discussed. Not only is the film an effective holiday horror gem—playing on the possession, pod persons, and home invasion subgenres—it strikes at the core of seasonal anxieties as many rejoin family and friends for the holidays for the first time in two years. Some of these anxieties may be unfounded, others are not. Either way, they are deeply felt by many. Hosts has the audacity to address them in an honest, brutal, and profound way.