'Hosts' is surprisingly brutal, and among the best new horror films you can stream right now

Don’t overlook 'Rot', 'Bill and Ted Face the Music' or 'The Giant', but avoid 'The Retreat' and 'Incision.'

click to enlarge Spoiler alert: Two of the people seated for Christmas dinner in "Hosts" are not who they seem. They might not even be human. - DARK SKY FILMS
Dark Sky Films
Spoiler alert: Two of the people seated for Christmas dinner in "Hosts" are not who they seem. They might not even be human.


Hosts
4.5 star(s), 89 minutes, DVD and Streaming

“Hosts” is one of the most surprisingly brutal, and yet oddly beautiful, horror mashups ever made.

First-time directors Adam Leader and Richard Oakes pull no punches and give zero fucks about your feelings. In doing so, they deliver an early kill that’s so shocking, so perfectly staged, that I was literally stunned.

Imagine Samuel L. Jackson’s death in “Deep Blue Sea,” and then add in a heartbreaking and tender speech immediately preceding it.

Leaders and Oakes initially disguise “Hosts” as a Christmas Eve home invasion thriller, but don’t be fooled. There’s so much more at play, and at stake. “Hosts” has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, but horror fans should be pleasantly surprised at the consistent bursts of shocking violence throughout.

If you're wondering, yes, I am purposefully withholding major plot details out of respect. That's the beauty of discovering, and then sharing, a movie like "Hosts." Half the fun is not having any idea what you're in store for when you hit play.

click to enlarge He's right behind me, isn't he, she said. Yes, we said, can't you smell the "Rot"? - THE HORROR COLLECTIVE
The Horror Collective
He's right behind me, isn't he, she said. Yes, we said, can't you smell the "Rot"?

Rot
4 star(s), 92 minutes, Amazon Prime

The announcement this week that “Rot,” a clever and effective contagion thriller, would debut immediately on Amazon Prime was a wonderful pre-holiday surprise.

That writer-director Andrew Merrill’s first feature is so engaging, and relies heavily on impressive and gory practical special effects, makes “Rot” feel even more like a gift.

“Rot” is the equivalent of a Trojan Unicorn, meaning it's refreshingly original and unexpected, due to Merrill’s insistence on focusing heavily on his characters, which allows viewers to develop a connection, well before the scary stuff starts. “Rot” excels where so many horror films fall apart by creating relatable and flawed characters, particularly with its two leads, Madison (Kris Alexandrea) and Jesse (Johnny Kostrey).

The core narrative about a highly contagious sickness that is spread through intimate contact, turning the infected into highly volatile vessels of chaos, feels eerily prescient, given the current pandemic and social unrest we’re dealing with in the real world. But it’s in the third act that Merrill really lets loose, creating a grotesque sexual serenade between Madison and Jesse that honestly has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Words just can’t do it justice.  

Bill and Ted Face the Music
3 star(s), 91 minutes, Streaming

Getting my wife, who had yet to experience any of the “Bill and Ted” franchise, to watch the concluding chapter of the trilogy, which began in 1989, proved to be almost better than finally experiencing “Bill and Ted Face the Music.”

Suffice to say, she was not a fan.

I get it, completely. Bill and Ted are an acquired taste. Of the three films, the first, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” remains the best complete movie, whereas several sequences in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” remain the strongest of all the films combined.

“Face the Music” faced an almost insurmountable level of anticipation among loyal devotees, but thankfully Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter clearly love these characters just as much as fans. The two actors easily assimilate back into form without missing any beats. It was an equally wise decision to add Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine as Bill and Ted’s daughters, who get their own equivalent of a reboot by having their own time-traveling adventure.

The story, surprisingly, is not bad, and nicely ties up several loose ends stretching all the way back to the first adventure. But let’s be honest, the reason people like me love Bill and Ted is not because they’re the funniest guys or because they have the wildest escapades. It’s their natural charm, sweetness and genuine good-naturedness that makes Bill and Ted resonate, and those qualities are particularly amplified and needed in today’s divisive and noisy world.

click to enlarge The journey matters more than the destination in "The Giant," a beautiful and somber twist on serial killers. - VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT
Vertical Entertainment
The journey matters more than the destination in "The Giant," a beautiful and somber twist on serial killers.

The Giant
3 star(s), 99 minutes, Streaming

David Raboy’s hypnotic debut feature, “The Giant,” is punctuated by sequences of such transcendent beauty and sadness that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a serial killer thriller disguised as a coming-of-age tale. Long stretches of “The Giant” are simply mesmerizing as Raboy’s emotional roller coaster of spurned love, youthful indiscretion and naïve delusions of invulnerability. Not every thing works, and that’s OK. I’d rather spend hours watching a new director explore ideas and play with genres than trudge through the umpteenth installment of a tired franchise. As good as “The Giant” is at times, I suspect Raboy’s next feature will be even better.

click to enlarge "Playhouse" is a gothic slow-burn set in a castle haunted by a malevolent spirit. - DEVILWORKS
Devilworks
"Playhouse" is a gothic slow-burn set in a castle haunted by a malevolent spirit.

Playhouse
2 star(s), 87 minutes, Streaming

Fionn and Toby Watts are the latest brothers to join forces as a writing and directing duo, but their debut, “Playhouse,” a gothic potboiler set inside a haunted Scottish castle, unfortunately fails to sustain enough dread or build enough tension to be truly memorable.

The film is not without its merits, and the Watts brothers clearly are having fun playing with conventional tropes, so hopefully their next movie will build on what works and remove some of the clunk that keeps “Playhouse” grounded.

click to enlarge It's not hand-to-hand combat, it's foot-to-elbow combat, or whatever works to kill all the bad guys in "Contracts" - INDIECAN ENTERTAINMENT
Indiecan Entertainment
It's not hand-to-hand combat, it's foot-to-elbow combat, or whatever works to kill all the bad guys in "Contracts"

Contracts
2.5 star(s), 75 minutes, Streaming

“Contracts,” the debut action film from writer-director Alex Chung, shows a lot of promise, and spotlights some very creative fight choreography when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, but the film feels more like a sizzle reel than an actual movie. “Contracts” is essentially structured like an anthology film, which often showcase short works by multiple directors. In this case, Chung is the only director, and “Contracts” plays out like a series of short, three-to-five-minute fight sequences between assassins and a master killer dispatched to finish them all off. This is not a knock on Chung’s art. For his sophomore feature, though, I’d love to see him incorporate more story to fill in the gaps between punches, kicks and final blows.

click to enlarge Don't look now, but a wendigo may be about to attack two hapless hikers in "The Retreat" - UNCORK'D ENTERTAINMENT
Uncork'd Entertainment
Don't look now, but a wendigo may be about to attack two hapless hikers in "The Retreat"

The Retreat
2 star(s), 88 minutes, Streaming

Director Bruce Wemple really has a thing for woodsy urban legends.

“The Retreat,” his second release so far this year, is about two guys camping who may or may not encounter the wendigo. This follows the release of “Monstrous” in August, which was about two friends searching for a missing loved one believed to be a victim of Bigfoot.

I’m all for watching more movies about giant furry beasts in the woods, but is it too much to ask that the movies at least be good?

“The Retreat,” for instance, is surprisingly strong for about the first half-hour. Gus (Grant Schumacher) agrees to go backpacking with Adam (Dylan Grunn) in lieu of a traditional bachelor party because Gus is Adam’s "best man" in his upcoming wedding. The lodge where they’re staying is adorned with too many drawings and renderings of the wendigo. Then another backpacker gives Gus some high-powered hallucinogenic tea, which of course he cajoles Adam into drinking against his better judgment.

But once the drugs kick in, Wemple loses sight of his endgame. “The Retreat” becomes an uneven,  nightmarish odyssey for one of the main characters, but Wemple’s attempts to play with time and disrupt his own narrative to keep viewers guessing completely backfires, at least for me.

If you want to watch a superior drug-fueled descent into madness, go seek out “Toad Road.”

click to enlarge "Sleepless Beauty" should have been an instant cult classic, but at least it doesn't lack for nightmare fuel. - EPIC PICTURES
Epic Pictures
"Sleepless Beauty" should have been an instant cult classic, but at least it doesn't lack for nightmare fuel.

Sleepless Beauty
2.5 star(s), 84 minutes, Streaming

As evidenced by the publicity art above, “Sleepless Beauty,” which hails from Russia, doesn’t lack for impressive visuals, but it doesn’t bring nearly enough original ideas to truly distinguish itself.

“Sleepless Beauty” is basically a new variation of a familiar and popular subgenre whereby ordinary folks find themselves abducted and subjected to a barrage of ruthless experiments by a faceless, nameless government or scientific entity. In this case, the innocent, unsuspecting protagonist is Mila (Polina Davydova), who is forced to remain awake for days while she endures an onslaught of torture and virtual-reality mind control.

I found myself returning in my mind over and over again to “Martyrs,” Pascal Laugier’s 2008 masterpiece, which explored many of the same themes but in a superior and wholly original way.

“Sleepless Beauty” also suffers from one of the worst English-language dubs in recent memory.

click to enlarge As I could only suffer through about 30 minutes or so of "Incision," I have no idea what's happening in this photo, but it doesn't look good. - AZ FILM STUDIOS
AZ Film Studios
As I could only suffer through about 30 minutes or so of "Incision," I have no idea what's happening in this photo, but it doesn't look good.

Incision
1 star(s), 79 minutes, Streaming

“Incision,” the debut feature from a director known only as Az, opens with an ominous, stylized credits sequence reminiscent of “Se7en,” and then goes straight to a woman with her mouth sewn shut trying to escape a basement laboratory. Don’t get excited. Oh no. “Incision” is interminable. After 15 minutes of character introductions, you already feel beleaguered. Apparently, things reminiscent of a horror movie eventually happen, but I’ll be honest, I pulled the plug after 40 minutes when absolutely nothing horrific had yet to happen.

Also Available as of November 17, 2020

The Brides of Dracula The classic 1960 Hammer Films production with Peter Cushing is new to Blu-Ray.
Burst City The Japanese cyberpunk cult classic is on Blu-Ray from Arrow Video.
Marona’s Fantastic Tale Shout! Factory delivers some high-definition Blu-Ray fun for the family. Animation with French subtitles? Why not.
Silent Running Bruce Dern stars in another cult classic from Arrow Video about an astronaut charged with destroying the last vegetation from Earth.
Saturday Night Live: The Early Years This 12-DVD collector’s box includes 30 complete SNL episodes from the show’s first five seasons, a 28-page keepsake book and a bonus disc with three additional episodes and the 100th episode special.

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.

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About The Author

John W. Allman

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films...
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