DIVING IN | David Hyde Pierce plays both to and against type in the indie comedy thriller ‘The Perfect Host,’ which screens as part of the USA Film Festival this week.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

David Hyde Pierce has become so identified with his most famous character, the milquetoast intellectual Niles Crane from Frasier, it must present him with a career conundrum: Either play into his type forever (boring himself in the process) or go totally against it (and risk alienating his fans). It’s probably why he’s spent the last few years working on Broadway. He seems to have split the baby cleverly with The Perfect Host, which both exploits and undermines his image.

Pierce plays Warwick, a prissy L.A. homeowner preparing for a dinner party. John (Clayne Crawford), a career criminal on the run from the cops, talks his way into Warwick’s house to escape the manhunt. It doesn’t require too much foresight to figure out not everything is as its seems. We’re not surprised when Warwick turns the tables on John, but from there the plot does head in unexpected directions. (not the least of which is watching Pierce disco dance to “Car Wash”).

The Perfect Host mines some of its ideas and style from several Hitchcockian films, especially Psycho, Rear Window, Deathtrap and The Collector, but also the subgenre of strangers-in-the-wrong-house thrillers, from Rocky Horror to Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Misery to Human Centipede. It’s never as disturbing as the latter three  (nor as funny as the former), but Pierce explores the many psychological shadings of his character effortlessly.

Director/co-writer Nick Tomnay actually toys with the audience’s sympathies, toggling between Warwick and John, but it does result in the film losing focus — what, exactly, does it want to be? Maybe that’s an unnecessary question. Take it for what it is: A compact match of wits and styles that keeps you guessing.