In April 2020, British writer-director Rob Savage pranked his friends via Zoom with a terrifyingly clever live jump scare and captured their reactions on Twitter. Three months later, Savage released Host, an (almost) full length movie on the streaming platform Shudder, which expands his prank into one of 2020’s best examples of transmuting the spooky realities of technology, coronavirus, and that one dumb friend into timely, escapist entertainment.
Noting that Host is “almost” full length is not to designate it as a short, but to acknowledge how much story gets packed into a run time of under an hour. The movie uses every single minute to set up its characters, foreshadowing, and twists while still leaving time for screamingly violent horror goodness. Savage is no stranger to tight scripting, having drawn critical acclaim for his previous horror shorts Dawn of the Deaf (2016) and Salt (2017), but Host stands out as remarkable for getting a full film’s worth of plot within the external time constraint of a non-subscription Zoom call.
Host’s premise revolves around a group of friends meeting up on Zoom to stay in touch while social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. One of the friends, the uptight but justified Hayley (Haley Bishop), sets up the meeting as an “online seance,” calling in a medium to provide some low-key thrills for her friends. The seance goes about as well as any seance goes in a horror movie, though Host is far from typical in its brilliance and unique execution.
Host is far from typical in its brilliance and unique execution.
Though Host takes place on a computer screen, it feels different from previous attempts at laptop horror because its principal photography actually took place using the devices used by the characters. In , director Rob Savage explained that he got Zoom’s permission to use their software in the film, taught the actors how to set up spooky effects with fishing wire, and directed their performances over video chat. His authentic approach seeps into Host’s final product, making its quality all the more impressive.
Also notable are the quality of the performances from Host’s actors, some of whom are the same people Savage pranked in his original Twitter video. Their natural delivery and typical social-distance happy hour banter in the film’s earlier moments lull the audience into a sense of familiarity, which makes the growing terror of the malignant spirit haunting their characters even scarier. Watching Host on a laptop or tablet adds to this feeling, especially framed by Zoom’s actual interface and amplified by the service’s occasional dips in video and audio quality.
There is an obvious if simple metaphor in Host, one that rises considering that the characters are only on Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without spoiling too much (and most of this is in Shudder’s own description of the movie), the Zoom seance only goes wrong because one character doesn’t take the situation seriously.
That character, like those who insist their peers are overreacting to the current pandemic and behave in accordance to that belief, is responsible for carnage that affects the vigilant, the frightened, the complicit, and the innocent. No one is safe when one person mistakes a threat for a joke — regardless if the threat is viral or paranormal.
Host is now streaming on Shudder.
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