Lockdown has been a strange time for all of us, but we’ve managed to make the best of it. Whether it be learning a new craft, catching up on books and films, working on your home fitness, or even just managing to work from home, we all have achieved something this year. Rob Savage made a horror film that is now an international sensation though, so I think it’s easy to say he wins.
Host starts with a typical day in lockdown, and a typical online hangout with friends Hayley (Hayley Bishop), Jemma (Jemma Moore), Caroline (Caroline Ward), Emma (Emma Webb), Radina (Radina Drandova), and Teddy (Teddy Linard). We have the drinking, the chitter-chatter that interrupts itself, and making light of the situation at large. However, instead of the usual quiz or film night, the group decide to try out an online séance, led by medium Saylan (Saylan Baxter). At first it’s just another activity, but it turns sinister as something not entirely human appears to have joined the friends on their call.
Initially, the concept for Host started out as a prank. On a Zoom call filmmaker Rob Savage decided to give his friends a little scare, so he went to investigate ‘strange noises’ that were apparently coming from his attic and, through use of some clever editing using a clip from Spanish horror [REC], made it look like a strange zombie child had attacked him. It went viral, and the attention spurred on Savage, along with co-writers Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley, to turn it into a full-length feature made entirely over Zoom. It premiered on Shudder in July, with a cast made up of many of the friends from the original pranked Zoom call.
There’s no denying that it’s a straightforward ghost story premise, but it’s the execution that makes the difference. The best horrors are those that turn their limitations into advantages, and that is especially true here as Savage, Shepherd and Hurley built story elements around the cast’s homes and quarantine situations, thereby determining the kind of stunts that were possible. They’re all simple, done practically in screen with minimal digital clean-up, and apart from one particular set piece are all really effective. Likewise, shooting it through laptop and smartphone cameras induces those visual and audio foibles, but the team turned them to their advantage to build a tense atmosphere.
It would be easy to dismiss Host as a British Unfriended or just a lockdown gimmick, but that would be a mistake - this is a great, scary horror. Savage knows when to let the tension simmer until your nerves are shredded - as you watch every corner of the screen hoping and dreading you will see something - and when it needs that sudden terrifying impact. These are jump scares done right. Also, one of the problems with Unfriended was that it was hard to connect with the characters, and there is no such issue here. The cast is great and wholly believable as they banter back and forth, a task made easy as they are all real-world friends, so you can understand why certain decisions are made and even worse when things start to go horribly wrong. Ward in particular has a wonderfully expressive face, and whilst all the cast have their moments you especially feel for her because her fear is so palpable.
What makes the film, though, are the little touches that ground us not only in the film’s reality, but in the very present reality that we have all been living in this year. We are all more than familiar with the sight of a video call screen at this point and the restless energy of trying to keep busy and entertained whilst having to stay at home. Many of us have been in situations this year where friends or loved ones are going through something difficult and we haven’t been able to be physically there to help so can only watch from the other side of a screen. Granted, it’s very unlikely that any of those situations involved demonic forces, but it’s still a recognisable feeling and bringing horror into the familiar, a little bit closer to reality, makes it easier to believe on an emotional level.
At 56 minutes Host initially feels like an odd length for a horror, but is exactly as long as it needs to be to tell its story, delivering everything you need in that runtime. But it’s another element that brings it closer to the real world as the bulk of the film lasts the 40 minutes of free Zoom call, complete with a “time left” countdown that even manages to terrify in its own way.
Whilst Host is certainly one of the better found footage horrors released in recent times, bringing to mind the low-budget effectiveness of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, its filmic ancestry has BBC’s 1992 television film Ghostwatch at its heart. Both sell the reality of their story through the use of the familiar, in Ghostwatch’s case it was the standard BBC studio documentary format and real life TV presenters, and both bring an uneasy atmosphere that slowly envelops you. waiting for something horrible to occur. They also emphasise simple but effective scares and achieve a lot in a short runtime. Host also has references to the likes of Lake Mungo, Alice Sweet Alice, Satan’s Slaves and other favourites of the writers. It’s a real treat for horror fans from that point of view, and I guarantee that you won’t catch everything on the first watch.
Whether you watch it on a laptop or TV, Host is a film that needs to be seen because it’s not just the scariest horror released in 2020, it’s the film that encapsulates the experience of life in 2020.
Host will be available to watch in select cinemas and on digital platforms from December 4.