The Host

The Host (2020)

The Host first published by

“This is a very unusual and very disturbing case.” 

So says the perplexed psychiatrist (Derek Jacobi), pouring himself a stiff drink before returning to his desk to face an unseen patient. “You seem to have been having dreams. Anxiety dreams…. Please tell me everything, from the beginning.”

Indeed, amid such promises of an unsettling story (and such mystification of the future narrator’s identity), the rest of Andy Newbery’s The Host will unfold in flashback from this prefatory consultation – but not before the animated title sequence, showing a spiral staircase, a roulette wheel and cards, a briefcase and aeroplane, a male figure at a door, a female figure swallowing down red wine (and the tiny man swimming in it) from a glass, the oddly disarticulated man drowning in a belly, and then another male figure at a door. These abstract, impressionistic images, themselves playing out like one of those anxiety dreams that the patient is said to be suffering, are presented in the unmistakable graphic style of Saul Bass, and accompanied by a string-heavy orchestral score (from Wan Pin Chu), all suggesting a film that will be ‘Hitchcockian’ in nature.

Nor ‘Hitchcockian’ as a merely stylistic gesture, either. For this is an updated reimagining, and right from from the narrative’s initial establishing aerials of a cityscape before Oona Menges’ camera voyeuristically approaches the outer window of a high-rise hotel where a couple are just finishing off their adulterous lunchtime assignation, it will quickly become clear precisely which Hitchcock film The Host is accommodating as its model, even if a monochrome Phoenix is now a full-colour London, even if the focal character has undergone a sex change from Marion Crane to Robert Atkinson (Mike Beckingham), and even if the sex that Robert is enjoying with his boss’s wife (Margot Stilley) is more explicit than anything Hitchcock could have shown in 1960 (although not more than Gus van Sant could show in his 1998 remake). Any lingering doubt that we are in Psycho territory (however remapped) will go out the window as we see Robert fleeing his workplace with the bag of cash that he has just embezzled, only to end up staying out of town in a hotel (of sorts) run by a woman – Vera Tribbe (Maryam Hassouni) – who lives there, alone but for her unseen invalid father upstairs. 

In other words, The Host comes with the baggage of foreshadowing (both the prologue, and the well-advertised Hitchcockian template), priming its viewer to expect certain things, and then playing upon those expectations with a range of alterations and deviations. For the most part, it cleaves remarkably close to the beats and twists of Psycho, but then London Triads, DEA investigations, ‘torture porn’ underground chambers and the cannibalism limned in the opening credits never did play any part in the Hitchcock, and so here serve to confound the paradigm. If the Bates motel was protected from scrutiny by its own backroad remoteness, Vera’s opulent mansion is hidden in plain sight, right in the centre of Amsterdam, and it is only her family’s affluence and influence which makes the building out of bounds, beyond the prying eyes of outsiders. Accordingly, the entanglement of poor, aspirant Robert with his rich, established hostess plays out in part as a clash of class, with their similar family histories (both have big daddy issues) leading them in very different directions as a result of their contrasting social backgrounds. 

From its opening prologue, we know that The Host is going to have a strong psychological dimension, and that one of its players will end up requiring serious therapy for what happens in the film. The final twist is the revelation not just of who is in the psychiatrist’s chair, but also of who is not, in a world where, no matter what petty compromises and criminalities we may commit in our desperate gambles to secure a better future for ourselves, we are, and always shall be, mere playthings for the superrich who, unlike the rest of us (including Bates), can get away with literally anything, and rarely if ever have to engage with the reality of the streets beyond their castles. If Robert, from the start, is falling without a safety net, Vera, we suspect, will be just fine no matter how low she goes. After all, she will always stay at the top of the food chain.  

Summary: Knowingly derivative yet interesting in all its little differences, Andy Newbery’s film reimagines Psycho as a modern, urban, gender-switched clash of class.

© Anton Bitel