Superhost. 2021. Directed & Written by Brandon Christensen.
Starring Sara Canning, Osric Chau, Gracie Gillam, & Barbara Crampton.
Not Rated / 84 minutes
Horror / Thriller
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Brandon Christensen keeps proving to be one of horror’s great new voices since his 2017 feature film debut Still/Born, followed up by the stunning and disturbing Z which brought to life a terrifying vision of an imaginary friend who refuses to let go. In 2021, Christensen returns with another great horror, Superhost—a bloody, uncomfortably hilarious satire about entitled YouTubers and the vicious fates they meet when their never ending quest for likes and subscribers lands them in a property belonging to an unstable woman using the rental economy to satisfy her urge for blood.
Teddy (Osric Chau) and Claire (Sara Canning) are travel vloggers, but they’re losing subscribers on their YouTube channel Superhost fast and they’re becoming desperate. They head off to a new vacation destination where they meet their latest host, Rebecca (Gracie Gillam), a strange but enthusiastic young property owner. The vacation begins slightly off kilter with incorrect security codes, a clogged toilet, and a home filled with security cameras. But Teddy’s determined to make this vacation the best, because he’s planning to secretly propose to Claire. The codes, toilet, and cameras aren’t the worst of issues, yet the vlogger couple have no idea what else Rebecca has in store for them beyond a few quirks, a cute smile, and a psychopath’s laugh.
Some of the first things we witness in Superhost are the fake personalities of YouTubers and ‘influencers,’ the latter being a word we ought to strike from our contemporary lexicon. Teddy and Claire are both guilty of faking things, though initially it’s Claire whose demeanour from on camera to off camera changes like a light switch. We see her instantly drop her big smile right after they finish recording a new video, epitomising the fabricated nature of YouTube videos. Many vloggers try to act natural in their videos when, really, the forced behaviour is often cringeworthy, even on bigger, more well-known channels. At one point Claire takes on the role of director, telling Teddy one of his reactions “felt fake,” later cheering him on like a true filmmaker and praising his “good energy.”
Some of the more brilliant satirical critique in Superhost involves Teddy’s planned wedding proposal to Claire as yet another piece of content. He tells his fans he’s going to “secretly record” it all, not thinking about how that reflects on his sincerity or on how Claire will feel having their intimate moment broadcast to thousands. He’s incapable of comprehending that as soon as he points that camera the whole thing becomes a performance, an act, another role to play for their audience. We see the confusion of what’s real v. what isn’t in a vlogging relationship after Teddy goes through with the proposal. Claire sees the camera setup and believes it’s Teddy’s way of boosting their channel to gain back subscribers, hurting his feelings due to his genuine love for her. At the same time, Teddy treated it like recording the rest of their content, so it’s actually funnier than sad. Claire, though a bit of a dick, actually recognises the performative qualities of everything she and her boyfriend do, right down to the possibility of marriage.
The best satirical moment showing how the wedding proposal is just more opportunity for content is when Teddy’s recording video, prior to their trip, while Claire’s in the shower, and he relates to his fans that he’ll be doing a secret marriage proposal. When he’s finished he doesn’t miss a beat, telling his subscribers: “I‘m so nervous. Don‘t forget to like and subscribe.” There’s nothing genuine about either Teddy or Claire, even in his proposal. We see more of their true colours as the film progresses, particularly when the ever fabulous Barbara Crampton turns up playing a former Airbnb host called Vera, whose reputation the vloggers ruined—it’s strongly implied the couple did this not because of an actual bad rental but because they wanted to create controversy and increase subscribers/views on their YouTube channel. The cruel irony is in the ending, when Claire’s final video calling out to be saved is deemed the dreaded “clickbait.” The real modern tragedy of the film is Teddy and Claire are just as wrapped up in a capitalist consumer society with their thirst for online revenue as Airbnb hosts who rent out their properties for profit while destroying the housing market.
“I’m not a hero, I’m a vlogger.”
Teddy and Claire’s entire Airbnb-style experience with Rebecca, prior to the actual slicing and dicing of the human anatomy, is reminiscent of actual peoples’ experiences with Airbnb. If you go to a hotel you’ve got a private room yet you’re still in a (semi) public place. In a rental economy, with hosting services like Airbnb, your private room is someone else’s home. Yes, you could still get a creep spying on you in a hotel, though it’d probably be more likely to happen at a motel—the documentary Voyeur covered this at disturbing length by telling the story of Gerald Foos, a motel owner who went to great lengths to create an intricate setup in the motel’s attic to spy on his guests for years. An Airbnb, or any similar service, places you in the confines of somebody’s property and at their will, and you don’t have a ton of other guests staying on the same premises, normally giving you a kind of unspoken social strength in numbers. Essentially, if a host wants to turn their rental into their own personal prison, they could, and that’s what Rebecca does in the lead up to the film’s finale. Teddy and Claire run back to the rental house after Rebecca murders Vera, then their host, who’s got the security codes, has them trapped. This idea of Rebecca’s house as a prison is all the more interesting when you consider the property’s called the Sugar House.
Bear with me here, as we run way out in left field a moment.
Superhost isn’t specifically set anywhere by name, but calling the property Sugar House, combined the way Rebecca uses the rental to imprison Teddy and Claire, calls to mind the sugar houses of New York City. During the American Revolutionary War, occupying British forces converted NYC sugar houses into makeshift prisons. Not only that, these sugar house prisons were in terrible condition for such purposes, resulting in many deaths: after the Battle of Forth Washington in 1776, 1,900 of approximately 2,600 prisoners of war died due to substandard conditions in the sugar house prisons. Rebecca’s only carrying on an American tradition in her own twisted way.
Another American tradition that Rebecca goes along with happily, and murderously, is good ole fashioned capitalism. A great scene in the film is when Rebecca messes with Teddy and Claire, pretending to stab Vera, only to actually murder Vera a bit later. The killer Airbnb host actually says “We need to capitalise on this” as she begins turning the tables on Teddy and Claire, basically creating new, disturbing content for the couple’s YouTube channel. For the remainder of the plot, Rebecca plays vlogger, mocking the online capitalist fakery of her victims. She generally parallels that free market fakery throughout the film, not just later on. For instance, at the beginning of the film Claire’s fake smile drops immediately once their video’s done, echoed when Rebecca does her interview with the vlogging couple, offering a big smile and, once they have the shot, dropping it entirely. Rebecca’s murderous psychopathy sits in fascinating juxtaposition with Claire’s capitalist psychopathy. Though the pièce de résistance in regards to Rebecca mocking/paralleling Teddy and Claire’s digital capitalist venture is when she finally murders Teddy, then smiles and tells the camera: “And don‘t forget to like and subscribe!”
One interesting thing about Christensen’s film is that there isn’t a whole lot of surprise about what’s going to happen, or about whom the killer will be, especially since the film’s poster itself tells us everything we need to know about our antagonist. This lack of mystery doesn’t hinder Superhost it makes the plot somewhat more suspenseful—we know what’ll happen, eventually, we just don’t know exactly how it’s going to occur, and a strong tension lies there. Rebecca’s simultaneously cute and sinister demeanour gradually wears us down, and the odd events happening around the vlogger couple just get stranger with each day they spend at the rental property, until things explode into utter horror throughout the final reel.
Superhost is fun as a slasher with one phenomenal performance by Gracie Gillam. It’s also a pretty smart satire about the horrors of a rental economy in which we put our faith in a greedy capitalist corporation and also put our lives in the hands of total strangers, trusting that neither will do us harm. Teddy and Claire trust images and messages online, later discovering their supposed host is someone other than who they were led to believe, which further leads the couple to their grisly deaths. Whether you view Rebecca as just a fun, crazy slasher villain, or see her as the creeping social death that is consumer capitalism, she is a force to be reckoned with, and an image to keep in the back of your mind next time you rent an Airbnb, naively believing nothing bad could ever happen to you.