Director: Rob Savage
Screenwriters: Gemma Hurley, Jed Shepherd, Rob Savage
Starring: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Edward Linard, Seylan Baxter
2020 has changed the way the world communicates, perhaps irrevocably. Out of necessity and practicality, video calling services like Skype and especially Zoom have kept people sane. These services have connected us with our work colleagues, and more importantly our friends and family, as we’ve all adapted to living and working from our own homes.
Films that incorporate technological artifice to enhance their storytelling are no new thing (Searching and Unfriended: Dark Web were both released in 2018, while found footage horror dominated the previous decade), but a worldwide pandemic has forced filmmakers to get creative in order to keep releasing new projects. Host is a horror film presented to us entirely over a Zoom call, with all the limitations from the time cap to the narrow field of view that this brings. It may be short, but by golly is it scary.
We follow six friends – Haley, Jemma, Emma, Radina, Caroline and Teddy – who liven up their weekly video call catchup by holding a socially-distanced seance over Zoom. When their hired spiritual guide loses her connection at an inopportune moment and the participants begin making fun of the whole ritual, something malevolent comes through from the other side and exacts its vengeance.
Things start typically enough for a quarantine Zoom call. Everyone exchanges pleasantries and the group chats about how life is going, all things considered. One of them is miserably living with her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend, another has gone back to stay with her parents and one is very smug to be stranded in a house with a pool.
The writers have come up with some smart new additions to the mythology of seances and contacting a presence beyond the veil – whatever you do, don’t invent a deceased friend to liven up proceedings or you could summon something far worse. Demonic entities apparently do not have a sense of humour and will inhabit any mask created for them intentionally or not. You’ll soon easily be able to distinguish those who have seen this film and those who haven’t by whether or not they shudder at the mention of the word “mask”.
As well as the nicely executed low-fi effects, what really makes Host connect (pun intended) is the easy, natural chemistry of the cast who bring the semi-improvised script to life. Having this troupe of real friends and frequent filmmaking collaborators share the screen pays dividends and helps everything to feel genuine. You’re not even with this collective for an hour (the Zoom call timer expiring also brings the action to a close) but you do feel like you know them and their respective places in the group dynamic, and every actor sells their nightmarish experience with aplomb.
You could nitpick all the usual issues with found footage horror, chiefly asking why anyone is still filming when they should be running. Fair enough when everyone is still sitting around their laptops and unsure of the sinister reality of their situation, but when you’ve just seen one of your friends meet a horrible end at the hands of an invisible entity and you’re definitely next, you don’t stop to take your camera with you to document your escape. Of course horror as a genre requires a certain suspension of disbelief, and we all know movies would be pretty boring if everyone in them acted logically.
There is a long build to the first big scare, but the final fifteen minutes or so is a veritable thrill ride. There is perhaps an over-reliance on jump scare after jump scare as the victims run for their lives in this final stretch, the film’s steadier images and ingeniously eerie use of Zoom backgrounds and filters leaving you with much more lasting nightmare fuel.
Host is proof positive of what can be achieved under some of the most challenging of creative circumstances. Director Rob Savage, as well co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd and their cast, have made a heart-pounding 56 minute ghost train that takes a simple, economic concept and expands it into something chillingly lasting. The sudden shocks grab your attention and get your palms sweating, but the individual seemingly benign images and the brutal relentlessness of this entity will chill you to the bone. Host does for Zoom calls what Jaws did for swimming in the sea.
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