In writer/director Brandon Christensen’s (Z and Still/Born) Superhost, travel vloggers Teddy (Osric Chau) and Claire (Sara Cannig) will do anything, and I mean anything for clicks. Viewers keep unsubscribing from their channel, and the loss of eyeballs strains their off-camera relationship. When they meet Rebecca (Gracie Gillam), the apparent property owner of a gorgeous rural home, Claire thinks Rebecca has just enough crazy to draw in new viewers. Claire won’t stop filming, no matter the danger. Superhost is a fun and engaging film, buoyed by Gillam’s fantastic performance. It’s also a clever critique of clickbait culture and the performative nature of social media.
Performing for the Camera
When we’re first introduced to Teddy and Claire, they’re filming, holding a camera up to their faces. They act chipper, flashing broad smiles when the record button is on. However, as soon as it’s off, the façade drops. Claire especially loses her smile and even her tone shifts. Yet, everything they do on camera is performative. When they arrive at Rebecca’s property, Claire re-films Teddy’s initial reaction to the sprawling house. She records his “first take” a second time, and even though he acts more surprised and ups the enthusiasm, she’s unhappy with it. “This is why we’re losing subscribers,” she says.
It’s difficult to find either character likable, Claire especially. Her online persona becomes irksome, and their rehearsed reactions to well, everything, is likely why their channel loses thousands of subscribers a week. Their videos ooze with insincerity, and thus, viewers never get a glimpse of what the hosts are actually like. Their behavior is dictated by whatever they think will get them the most likes and clicks.
A Rocky Offline Relationship
If Claire is the one in the relationship more focused on likes and upping the numbers, Teddy is the one who shows a softer, more human side. When she’s not around, he films solo to address viewers directly. He lets them in on a little secret: he plans to propose to Claire. These sequences, filmed in secret to save the surprise, are a refreshing change from the other content uploaded to the channel. Teddy, at least, cares about something other than viewers “smashing” the like button. That said, even Teddy’s plans to propose, something that should be intimate, are shared with over 100,000 subscribers. There are so few moments in which Teddy and Claire do something meaningful away from the camera.
Further, it’s clear that Teddy and Claire don’t have any other jobs. More than once, Claire comments that they’re only able to pay their bills because Teddy’s parents assist them. She’d like for them to eventually get their own place again and become financially independent. Thus, she puts all her stock in their travel vlogs. For her, it’s a means of financial survival, but her constant focus on the numbers drives a wedge between her and Teddy. She rarely shows him any intimacy off-camera, and she spends countless hours in front of her laptop, editing and uploading content. There’s always a need for more videos and fresh takes.
Rebecca, the Superhost from Hell
The real highlight of the film is Gillam’s performance as Rebecca. She initially comes across as an overly friendly property owner whose main concern is earning a good review from the couple. Yet, her smile and enthusiasm come across as scripted as Teddy and Claire’s fake social media personas. There’s something deeper going on, and the reveal is worth the wait. Additionally, there’s something off about the house. None of the massive windows, even in the bedroom, have curtains. There are cameras everywhere and a large cat room but no cat in sight.
Watching Teddy and Claire unearth more and more details about Rebecca’s past makes for a thrilling ride, especially witnessing Gillam’s reactions play out on screen. In short, she’s one of the most expressive and emotive characters in any horror film thus far this year. Everything, from her laugh to her hair-raising niceness, is overly dramatic and works to the utmost effect. By the time it’s revealed that she killed a couple and took over their house, it really comes as no surprise. Her behavior is so odd and alarming.
Yet, beneath Rebecca’s façade and grisly past, there’s a woman who just seems, well, lonely. When her story is revealed and it’s made clear why she murdered a couple (Betty and Lou, hence her username BettyLou52) and took over their house, it’s generally a sympathetic story. She just wanted to belong and craved acceptance. When she was offered a hint of it, she refused to let it go and leave. If anything, social media and the constant need for clicks and likes have an isolating effect.
And the Camera Keep Rolling
Though Claire thinks it’s a great idea to keep uploading content, she gets more than she bargained for. Eventually, Rebecca operates the camera as she threatens Teddy and Claire’s lives. This is the first time that they show real, authentic emotion on their channel. It only comes when their lives are endangered, and they show genuine fear. The constant need for clicks leads to their undoing, and it’s wildly amusing to watch it all play out. They wanted to make Rebecca the focus of their channel, but she flips their script and hunts them while filming.
Without spoiling anything, it’s also a real treat to see Barbara Crampton interact with Gillam in one specific delightfully bloody scene. Crampton doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but she plays Vera, a property owner whose business went belly up after Teddy and Claire’s negative reviews. I’d love to see Crampton and Gillam in another film sometime because they’re both good at leaning into the absurd. They deserve more screen time together. While Crampton’s role is small, it does show the impact that negative reviews and social media can have on a business and even how it can destroy lives.
Superhost Finds A Fitting Ending Worthy of Many Likes
Superhost builds to an ending that feels….perfect. The more over the top Gillam’s performance is, the more enjoyable the film. Meanwhile, Christensen’s commentary on social media never comes across as heavy-handed. It’s smart, especially when Claire’s final video, pleading for help, posts, and viewers call it trashy clickbait. When the hosts spend so much time acting inauthentic, their real emotions are questioned as nothing more than a ploy to gain new followers.
Rebecca, meanwhile, makes for an intriguing villain, and the final shot of her wearing a necklace with other people’s rings shows that she’s been at the game for some time. If anything, I wish Superhost contained more of her backstory. Is it too much to ask for a prequel or sequel maybe? We need more of this character!
Despite plenty of comedic and outlandish moments, Superhost underscores how our social media personas can put a real damper on our offline relationships that should matter most. This topic isn’t anything new, but Christensen finds a unique way to address it through a small cast of stark characters. What part of ourselves do we sacrifice or hide to gain new followers? What impact does constant connectivity have on our actual relationships? Each character carries their own sorrow. Teddy wants an emotional connection with Claire that exists offline, while she’s so consumed with work that she denies his affection. Rebecca is an adrift killer who takes drastic means against anyone who rejects her. They all lack meaningful, face-to-face connections.
Superhost premiers on Shudder on September 2. You don’t want to miss this one.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.