The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the biggest disruption to the entertainment industry in decades. Movies that were finished and about to be released have been pushed back months or shifted to digital home release, while those that were already in production have been left in limbo as they wait to restart filming. Meanwhile, theater chains face huge financial problems as they sit empty. As with all times of crisis, the art produced during this time has started to reflect the situation--Shazam director David Sandberg made the impressive lockdown horror short Shadowed, while Michael Bay is producing a "pandemic thriller" titled Songbird.
The new British horror film Host, which hits Shudder this week, was written, filmed, and finished during quarantine. It's a found footage movie that plays out entirely on Zoom--writer/director Rob Savage and co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd never interacted in person with their actors, all of whom filmed their roles separately from their own homes. The film was then edited and completed remotely.
The basic set-up is one familiar to most of us over the past few months--with a twist. Six young friends--Haley (Haley Bishop), Radina (Radina Drandova), Teddy (Edward Linard), Jemma (Jemma Moore), Caroline (Caroline Ward), and Emma (Emma Louise Webb)--assemble one evening during the pandemic on Zoom, to drink, laugh, and talk about the weird situation the world finds itself in. Only this time, the meeting's host, Haley, has invited a seventh guest--a middle-aged clairvoyant named Seylan (Seylan Baxter), who is there to lead the group through a virtual seance (presumably the novelty of online quizzes had worn off). The evening starts in lighthearted fashion--only Haley is taking the seance particularly seriously--but soon things get very strange and scary.
A pandemic found footage horror movie set on Zoom seems like such an obvious thing for quarantined filmmakers and actors to make in 2020 that it would be amazing if Host is the only one heading our way. But it's easy to see why this is the one that has broken through first and is getting a high profile release on Shudder. It's an effective piece of horror filmmaking that uses an experience that so many of us have had over the past few months to chilling effect.
Host is the latest in a series of recent tech-based genre movies that work best when viewed on the devices they are "set" on. Horror films and thrillers such as Unfriended, The Den, Open Windows, and Searching have all embraced the limitations of their format--usually set entirely within an app--and Host absolutely succeeds in this. Viewing it on the same laptop or device that you've already had dozens of Zoom meetings on this year is a genuinely unnerving experience. This isn't some fictional social media app like in many of the aforementioned movies--this is literally Zoom. The faces on the screen could be any group of friends, and the relaxed, naturalistic performances from the actors immediately create a sense of believability that helps when things start getting scary.
As a horror movie, Host plays out like the greatest hits of found footage. It takes the scariest elements of genre favorites such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and REC, and delivers a shock every few minutes. From sudden unexplained noises, ghostly figures glimpsed in the darkness, ill-advised trips into the attic, and people pulled across rooms by unseen forces, it's all here. There are no frights that horror fans won't have experienced many times in the two decades since Blair Witch first terrified audiences. It's definitely scary in places, but viewers looking for a more original spin on found footage might want to look elsewhere.
However, Host succeeds because it taps directly into the experience that millions of people have themselves lived through since March--and continue to live through. The filmmakers confront both the feelings of isolation for those living alone, and of those who miss their alone time, such as Radina, who's feeling strained by her fragile relationship with a boyfriend she wasn't planning to move in with any time soon. There is humor that many viewers will relate to--at one point the seance is interrupted by a grocery delivery--and Savage uses Zoom's functionality in clever ways, including the countdown to the end of a free 40-minute meeting, and the inventive use of a virtual background.
The film's length plays a big part too. It's just 56 minutes long, ensuring that the tension never drops and the format never becomes tiring. In a different era, a movie this short might have struggled to get seen, as it's much longer than a short film, and yet way too succinct for any kind of "normal" feature release. But in the streaming era, there's absolutely no reason a movie has to be the traditional 90 minutes or longer. Just under an hour is exactly the right length in this case, and Savage deserves credit for not padding it out further.
Horror is often at its best when it mirrors the shifting world around us, whether dealing with issues such as race, consumerism, or the environment. Host probably won't age well--both in terms of the technology and the fact it's set very specifically in a (hopefully) highly unusual year. But at a time when so many pre-pandemic movies have little in common with what is happening right now, it's refreshing to see a well-made, effective indie horror that works as both escapist entertainment and as a reflection of a shared experience.
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