Host is the perfect pandemic horror movie. Shot entirely on Zoom, it features a menacing presence that’s out there… somewhere… and a bunch of mates who are communicating with each other lockdown-style via laptop/phone/tablet.
Expanding a short that went viral and gave director/co-writer Rob Savage an in with Shudder, who financed the film, it takes the glitches and irritations of the Zoom call and puts them to work dramatically.
Realism is everything here and Savage and co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd have kept in the stuff that makes a Zoom call a Zoom call. So, the scratty getting-going moments, when one person is online but another isn’t, the terrible sound of a headset microphone brushing against material, the relentless swearing and easy banter of people aged around 30 who really know each other, off-piste discussions about PornHub, the insistence on “cheeky” drinks, and so on.
The characters in it have the actors’ own names – Haley, Jemma, Emma, Radina, Caroline, Alan and Teddy. Caroline’s dad is played by Patrick Ward, who is Caroline’s dad in real life too. He’s there because, hey, that’s lockdown.
The catalyst taking us from the everyday into the realm of horror is Seylan (also her own name), a medium who’s been got in as a bit of a laugh to conduct a seance to make this Zoom call something special. Isolation has made this gang desperate for some novelty. And off we twitch from the world of echoey acoustics in IKEA kitchens into one where things go bump and people start screaming.
It’s Paranormal Activity updated, in other words, but updated brilliantly, using the prevailing tech and moment we’re in to craft something that wouldn’t really have worked a year ago and (god willing) won’t really work quite so well a year from now (I’m writing this in the early days of 2021).
Like Paranormal Activity, and other “found footage” films (a term that really needs updating), Host relies for some of its effects on silence – nothing happens sometimes and that’s OK – and also the ambiguities engendered by wonky tech. Was that glitch just a broadband hiccup or did something just move at the back of the kitchen?
The acting is occasionally self-conscious, but then that’s how it is with Zoom too, especially when you can see your own big fat face staring back at you as you chat with your mates, or hear your own voice suddenly booming in your headset.
It’s brilliantly observed, in other words, and everyone involved has gone to great pains to keep it as real as possible for as long as possible. Obviously, once the seance gets out of hand and a supernatural force is unleashed that realism has to graciously leave the room. But the commitment remains total – careful choreography and detailed execution take over from the looser, semi-improv style of what’s gone before. This is where the money saved on elaborate sets, camera rigs, catering etc has been spent.
I thought I saw a visual reference to The Blair Witch Project, which is the big daddy of all these things, and there’s also a plot reference to The Exorcist, possibly. There may be more horror film allusions in there but to be honest I was focusing so hard on what was happening that more expansive thinking was temporarily on hold. The close miking and the way all the Zoomers lean in to their laptops, the way you do, encourages the viewer to do the same and get really involved.
It just all works so well. You know a horror film is good when you know a scary “boo” moment is coming and you brace yourself for it… and it gets you anyway. On top of all the other great things, Host is that film too.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021