The surprise horror hit of the pandemic-stricken summer of 2020 was Rob Savage’s ultra low budget Host the plot of which revolved around that suddenly ubiquitous technology the video conference, once the province of the business community or the tech savvy but by now the favoured mode of discourse for families and communities in enforced lockdown. In this case it’s a Zoom call between friends that takes a terrifying turn but it could just as easily have been any one of the many ways that people found to stay connected in trying times.
The film opens with the now all-too-familiar Zoom log-in screen before our protagonists join us for an evening’s chat and divination. Haley (Haley Bishop), Jemma (Jemma Moore), Emma (Emma Louise Webb), Radina (Radina Drandova) and Caroline (Caroline Ward) are briefly joined by the irritating Teddy (Edward Linard) (typical man, in his brief appearances he does his best to monopolise the conversation and undermine the group, particularly Haley, at every opportunity) are joined by psychic Seylan (Seylan Baxter) whose plans to lead the group in a séance quickly goes awry. A practical joke by Jemma opens the door to a malevolent spirit that initially makes itself felt in a series of poltergeist manifestations (light bulbs explode, furniture moves around, kitchens are trashed) before finally taking physical shape in the form of British horror regular James Swanton (Frankenstein’s Creature (2018), Vampire Virus (2020), The Banishing (2020), A Werewolf in England (2020) and many a spooky stage adaptation of the works of M.R. James, Charles Dickens and many others). Peripheral characters meet grisly ends as the five young women become increasingly panicked by the strange and terrifying events playing out around them.
There’s not much here that’s particularly new. The idea of an electronic séance was the backbone of the BBC’s Screen One: Ghostwatch (1992), written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning and the use of a video call to make a horror film in the “found footage” format dates back to at least Michael Costanza’s The Collingswood Story (2002). Other films making use of conference calling technology include Zachary Donohue’s The Den (2013), Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2014), Branden Kramer’s Ratter (2015) and Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web (2018) among others.
And yet despite that, Host still works, admirably in fact, by virtue of believable characters (the mostly unknown cast, all of them excellent, are remarkably natural, giving the impression that they’re improvising a lot of the jokey interplay within the group) and some expertly staged shocks. When it comes to lockdown horrors, Host isn’t just in a different league to the execrable Corona Zombies (2020), it’s playing a whole other, much more intelligent and sophisticated game.
Host doesn’t waste too much concerning itself with the actual COVID-19 pandemic that led to its creation. There are jokes here and there about not being able to cough in public anymore and throwaway mentions of being in lockdown but the fear of the disease isn’t the game that Host is playing. Like Ghostwatch before it and Nigel Kneale before that it’s about the literal ghost in the machine, about older supernatural horrors using the latest technologies to its own ends. As cautionary tales go you’d be hard pressed to find one as timely and so in tune with the prevailing mood of isolation, despair and fear as Host.
It takes the well-worn tropes of the “found footage” film – the sudden jump scares, things lurking barely seen by the participants in the backgrounds or at the edge of frame, the technology itself proving unreliable and vulnerable to abuse – but stages the scares so well and gets such believable performances from its small cast that it unquestionably delivers the goods. Savage brings a surprising degree of artistry to what is in effect a series of semi-static camera set-ups and close-ups of faces in increasing states of panic. Aided by some impressive stunts coordinated by Nathaniel Marten and Matthew McKay, visual effects supervised by Stephen Bray that merge seamlessly with the more practical effects and Dan Martin’s excellent make-up effects, Savage works wonders on what must have been the tiniest of budgets.
A floating, disembodied Instagram filter, the body of a missing boyfriend suddenly and shockingly turning up again and Swanton’s brief but highly effective appearance as the malevolent spirit unleashed by the séance are among the highlights, the latter’s sudden appearance in the flash of a Polaroid camera’s flashgun being a particularly bowel loosener. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen plenty of times before but Savage times them brilliantly and there are more than enough did-I-really-just-see-that moments to keep you on edge throughout. At around 17 minutes into its brisk 57 minute running time things start to get creepy and Savage never lets up until the clever end credits which display most of the cast and crew as a list of participants in the call.
That Savage (who previously made short films, including the excellent Salt (2017) which also featured Swanton as a demonic presence and which in retrospect acts as a sort of spiritual precursor of Host) and his cast managed to pull this off at all when none of them were physically present in the same space is impressive. Host feels spontaneous, as though it were captured on a first take which belies what must surely have a logistical nightmare trying to get it all together. It works so effectively that watching on a laptop (Host debuted on the streaming service Shudder) makes you feel a part of the events unfolding before you – try to fight the desire to click on that now-familiar Zoom pop-up warnings which, incidentally confirm the illusion that everything is taking place in real time.
Convincingly acted, ingeniously plotted and written by Savage and producer Gemma Hurley (Caroline’s barely audible “no” when she decides that going into the attic might not be the best idea after all is exactly what most of us were likely muttering at that very moment) but also surprisingly very funny (a grocery delivery is briefly mistaken for a response from the spirit world) Host sets the bar high for any subsequent lockdown horrors. Its simplicity is its trump card – it wants to do one thing and one thing only, to make us jump. OK, maybe two things – to make us look warily over our shoulder next time we’re on a video conferencing call. In both respects it works perfectly.