One of the more memorable moments in Pulp Fiction occurred when boxer Butch Coolidge and crime boss Marselus Wallace, in the midst of a no-holds-barred fist fight, stumbled into a pawnshop and suddenly discovered they'd found the worst place in Los Angeles to be in trouble with nowhere to run. Writer and director Nick Tomnay's first feature film, The Perfect Host, builds on the same sort of premise, and he makes a clever and often witty thriller out of a crook on the lam who picks a really bad place to hide out from the cops, which turns out to be every bit as creepy as spending an evening with The Gimp.
As The Perfect Host opens, John Taylor (Clayne Crawford) is on the run after pulling a bank robbery that turned messy; he doesn't have the money, but he did get a bullet in his left foot for his troubles. Things get worse when John stops in a liquor store in hopes of getting something to bandage his wounds, and moments later he's stuck in the middle of a holdup. Looking for a place to rest, collect his thoughts, and hide from the police after hearing his name on the news, John makes his way to an upscale neighborhood on the other side of town and smooth-talks his way into the home of wealthy and well-dressed Warwick Wilson (David Hyde Pierce), who is expecting guests for a dinner party. Warwick turns out to be gracious and generous, and more than willing to help; while John's web of lies threatens to blow away at any moment, all seems well when Warwick offers to let John join him and his guests for dinner. John accidentally tips his hand and Warwick realizes his new guest is not what he claims to be, but John quickly finds out that Warwick isn't necessarily the one in danger. John passes out after drinking some drugged wine, and when he comes to he discovers that Warwick's dinner guests -- with whom he enjoys a lively conversation -- exist only in his mind. Much more problematic is Warwick's standard routine for uninvited dinner guests -- one that involves rituals, blood, and a carefully maintained scrapbook.
To say much more about the plot would reveal some interesting twists and turns along the way, and while not every unexpected detour in this movie works, Nick Tomnay's script keeps the viewer guessing about where this story, seemingly simple at first, is going to end up, especially since almost no one involved turns out to be quite what you expect when they're first introduced. John Taylor, the crook who isn't as smart as he thinks or as dumb as he seems, is the engine that moves the story forward, and Clayne Crawford gives him a sure footing and plenty of gusto, but the movie belongs to David Hyde Pierce, who walks away with the show as Warwick Wilson. After his long run on the sitcom Frasier and memorable supporting roles in movies like Full Frontal and Down With Love, Pierce finally gets the leading role he deserves in The Perfect Host, and he makes Warwick funny and horrifying, ingratiating and off-putting all at once, and while the character revels in some grand-scale psychosis, Pierce never pushes the character over the top, keeping him reigned in just close enough that he's somewhat realistic, and all the more disturbing for it. (Trust me, you'll be seeing him dance to the theme from Car Wash in your nightmares for years to come.) Megahn Perry is memorable in a small but crucial role as John's girlfriend, and Helen Reddy makes her first big-screen appearance in 24 years as Warwick's nosy neighbor, and does well enough that she could probably book more character roles if she's interested. This film is Nick Tomnay's first feature, and sometimes its structure seems more complex than it needs to be, but the director carefully ties up most of his loose ends by the time the movie winds to a close, and enough of his gambles pay off well. The Perfect Host makes a game out of confounding expectations, and it pays off with enough suspense, uneasy laughs, and entertaining eccentricity to be a clever diversion that's smart, ambitious, and fun.