Panic Fest 2021: ‘An Ideal Host’ Is Full of Scary Surprises

Anyone who’s hosted a dinner party before knows the struggle faced by Liz, the protagonist of Robert Woods’s directorial debut An Ideal Host, which screened as part of Panic Fest 2021. How do you schedule out all the proper activities? How do you decide on a theme for the place settings, the recipes, the decorations? How do you handle uninvited guests and friends who become troublesome when drunk? How do you protect yourself and your friends from an invasion of otherworldly things bent on ruining far more than just your party?

Wait, that last one might be exclusive to Liz. Hmm.

In the tradition of weird and wonderful Australian horror-comedy, An Ideal Host pits the perfect evening against imperfectly deadly consequences. Liz and her boyfriend Jackson have just moved into a lovely little ranch house in the countryside and have been trying to plan a dinner party for their friends to introduce them to the property. Their plans to stage a surprise marriage proposal, however, are derailed by a few factors—the arrival of unwanted alcoholic guest Daisy, the extremely painful attempts at flirting between several of the other guests, and of course, the aforementioned unexpected visitors. Nothing Liz can’t handle, though. Right?

A woman holds a scrubbing brush in a kitchen in An Ideal Host

Going into this movie blind as I did (I’ll try my best to dance around the nature of it all), you’ll originally be met with what appears to be a quirky, charming indie comedy with no sci-fi or horror elements to be seen. There are bold personalities, terribly awkward interactions, and characters you’ll very quickly learn to hate. You’ll think you know what to expect—and then you won’t when things start to happen. The party quickly goes from a social disaster to an increasingly hopeless fight for survival, and I was hit with surprise after surprise as An Ideal Host‘s true genre sensibilities floated to the top. It’s a very entertaining ride, watching the story snowball from hints of something odd happening in the background to an all-out horror-thriller, without ever once losing its offbeat sense of humor.

An Ideal Host has a few awkward effects and audio choices but manages to make up for them with its all-out commitment to its own bit. The creature effects (yes, there are creatures) are subtle and effective for the most part, and any moments of dialogue I had a bit of trouble hearing were elevated by everyone’s clear character and the wonderful score. The effects get really good in the final act of the movie, ratcheting the quirky sci-fi elements into full-blown grindhouse horror—another surprise I never found myself expecting. The film keeps things rather tame up until this point, then throws everything into absolute, gore-soaked overdrive for an explosively entertaining finale. There will be moments you find yourself wondering how things got to this point from the unassuming beginning, and it’s one of this movie’s greatest strengths. The way the very end circles back around to comedy and calls back to the very start makes for a satisfying finish as well.

Two men and a woman in a car in the daytime in An Ideal Host

The ensemble cast of An Ideal Host helps it bridge its horror and comedy sensibilities, as well—Nadia Collins is a standout lead as poor, put-upon Liz, going from earnest sincerity to comical perfectionism to straight-up horror movie heroine while hardly batting an eye. Her boyfriend/fiancé Jackson is played as the one grounding force in Liz’s life by Evan Williams, and watching them attempt to juggle dinner party responsibilities and potentially world-ending consequences makes for a huge chunk of this movie’s fun. Everyone in the dinner party brings their own quirks and drawbacks to the table (table! get it? like dinner? where you eat dinner? sorry I’ll keep going); I had a particular fondness for Mara (Mary Sudi), a young woman who desperately wants to flirt with the singles at the party, even though her entire personality is built around talking about her recent vacation to Bali. And of course, let’s not forget Daisy, played by Naomi Brockwell with all the pent-up frustration, unaddressed alcoholism, and unresolved drama a character this easy to dislike deserves.

Among its many strengths, though, I think An Ideal Host‘s biggest hit is its ability to both build and break trust among the dinner guests through the horrors they’re forced to endure throughout what was supposed to be the perfect night. Enemies are forced to become allies to survive. Lovers are torn apart by their allegiances to the survivors or the otherworldly assailants. People are forced to kill people they thought they knew better than anyone, and you will still somehow have a smile on your face as every horrible thing happens in front of you. In all its drama, tension, and eventual over-the-top violence, this movie never forgets to have fun, and it makes for a viewing experience that’s sure to please horror and comedy fans alike.

Robert Woods and his cast have put together a wonderful, surprising horror-comedy in An Ideal Host that I’m sure will live on at midnight movie parties for some time after it gets its official release. It stretches far beyond its low-budget limitations with its high level of spirit and sheer volume of twists and turns throughout. It manages to be charming, creepily silly, and outright terrifying in equal measure, and if you’re a fan of any of those things at all, I highly recommend you check this little gem out.

Maybe, though, don’t show it at your own dinner party. We all know how those can go.

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Written by Peter L.

Peter L. (any pronouns) is a writer, filmmaker, musician, DJ, and lapsed theater kid from Raleigh, North Carolina. A fan of body horror and rave culture, he can be found playing guitar with his band AKLF, producing and performing dance music as LXC, or failing to finish another screenplay. He thinks Tokyo Gore Police is horribly underrated.

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