As quarantines shut down the world as we know it, too many took to social media to proclaim this could be a grand opportunity for creativity. “Did you know Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague!?” They chirped as back-handed encouragement. I mean, if Shakespeare could pull it together to write one the greatest plays of human history during a plague, you could at least write a novel, create a concept album, or elevate the rom-com. It’s not like on top of working from home, home-schooling kids, planning meals three times a day, and trying not to fall apart at the seams you don’t have the time or mental bandwidth, right? We all deserve applause for functioning at all at this point.
That’s why it’s almost infuriating that Host is as good as it is. This now-streaming Shudder exclusive was made entirely during the pandemic. It’s set during the pandemic, and it’s the kind of scream-inducing scary that’ll make you nostalgic for sleepover movie nights or the before times when we could easily go see a movie in theaters with friends!
The creation of Host began with a Zoom-set short film, which director Rob Savage shared on Twitter. The two-minute short packed a punch, offering a solid proof of concept, which urged Shudder to produce a feature-length version.
I’ve been hearing strange noises from my attic, so I called a few friends and went to investigate… pic.twitter.com/CxmJAf44ob— Rob Savage (@DirRobSavage) April 21, 2020
Savage, Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd collaborated on the screenplay, which follows a group of friends as they conduct a seance over the video-chat app. Like Unfriended, the entire movie is shown as if you’re watching the laptop screen of the chat’s host. That’d be Haley (Haley Bishop), a true-believer in the astral plane, who struggles to get her weekly Zoom mates on board. The jocular Teddy (Edward Linard) and snarky Radina (Radina Drandova) make up a drinking game, while spirited Jemma (Jemma Moore) toys with psychic Seylan (Seylan Baxter). Sweet Emma (Emma Louise Webb) and smirking Caroline (Caroline Ward) nervously joke to break the tension. But these jibes aren’t appreciated by the dead. Strange sounds, phantom touches, and flickering lights begin to freak out the friend group. Then, things turn sharply from bad to bloody.
At just 56-minutes, Host is a lean thriller, making little time for characterization. However, the game cast efficiently gives us a taste of each friend, so we can get a feel for the group. Frankly, considering the setting, we don’t need much to feel invested. They, like us watching at home, are trapped inside because of an unspoken threat outside. Then, even their home feels unsafe as something invisible and unwelcomed intrudes to rip their lives apart. The vicious spirit that will throw open doors, toss tokens across rooms, and pop out for truly chilling jump scares is an embodiment of the pandemic that invades our space and our bodies, hurling us into terrifying chaos.
Though the film gets off to a slow start, once the scares start coming, Savage has his audience in the palm of his hand. He’s a clear horror-lover, carefully setting up stagings that give goosebumps, then delivering a payoff that demands screams. These standard setups are often utilized in the solidly scary reality-TV series Paranormal Witness. Here is a dark room with a woman alone and defenseless. The shot lingers, making us wait for some nightmare to take shape. Then, boom! A spring of violence! A twisted maw! A terror too close to escape! Each one gives a jolt to the system that left me throwing my hands to my mouth to cover the ragged yelps that barreled out.
Executed in reel time, the setups between scares moves at a ruthless pace, barely allowing the audience to catch their breath before the next. I literally had chills throughout, because Savage has so successfully orchestrated the pace of terror here. The ensemble cast gives their all in shattered expressions and harrowing screams. The cinematography—from webcams and camera phones—is superbly shot, always keeping the essentials in focus and in frame. A shrewd edit, strings reaction shots and action stunts together in a way that veers away from the reality of how Zoom works. Yet, this brews an enveloping atmosphere that makes us feel like we’re with them and just as helpless to stop the carnage as the characters are. However, while these scares are effective, they’re not inventive.
Host is largely made-up of tropes and memorable moments plucked from other horror standouts. The setup of Zooming friends dying one-by-one by a ghostly slasher is the plot of Unfriended. The found footage scenes that follow characters down winding stairwells and up into a creepy attic come from the Spanish zombie hit [REC]. Some eerie shots seem cribbed from the found footage landmark, The Blair Witch Project, while a pair of spooky stagings—involving flour and a blanket—recall this year’s Invisble Man. The use of a Polaroid camera flash to see in the dark could be a reference to Rear Window, Saw or Mama. The ghost here has the pale and high-contrast look reminscent of Japanese horror like Ringu or Ju On. Then, there’s even a reference to the real-life horror of bringing Zoom into the bathroom.
There’s very little that’s original to Host. However, it’s such a scrappy, suspenseful thrill that I just don’t care. He may be coloring inside the lines, but Savage made a satisfyingly scary picture. That he did it with all the obstacles of the pandemic is all the more impressive. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Host debuted on Shudder on July 30.
Header Image Source: Shudder