Host is the kind of movie that could only have been made now. Taking place entirely on a Zoom conference call, with the COVID-19 quarantine in full effect (one character even puts a mask on for a brief venture outside), Rob Savage’s nifty, gnarly little Internet horror works off our most basic fears; of being alone in our homes but not really being alone, of thinking there’s something lurking behind us that we can’t see, and of allowing ourselves to wander straight into the path of danger without even realizing we’re doing it.
The devilishly simple setup sees five longtime female friends (Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, and Caroline Ward, all using their own names, which adds to the eerie authenticity) meeting up on Zoom for a séance, as you do, led by wise professional Seylan (Seylan Baxter) and casually interrupted by manbun-sporting Teddy (Edward Linard), the sole male onscreen. At first, they’re joking around and not taking it too seriously but, when spooky things start happening both online and IRL, they start questioning exactly who or what they’re really communicating with.
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Host is just 56 minutes long, so naturally there isn’t a second to waste with expository nonsense or atmosphere-sapping scene-setting. Savage gets to the meat of the story within the first 15 minutes, but by that stage you’ll be coiled up like a spring, desperate for some kind of release (and, trust me, it only gets worse from there). The film has a similar tone to the vastly underrated Unfriended, or the little-seen but life-ruining The Den, in that it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to putting the characters in real danger. There aren’t many false flags here; most of the bumps in the night are actual bumps rather than ironing boards falling down (though there’s some of that too).
Considering the film is so short, it may seem like a given that Host can confidently hold our attention but there are several different variables at play here that make it as effective an experience at it is. The sound design is impeccable, every strange noise echoing so that we’re questioning everything we’re hearing just as the characters do. The performances are skilled, naturalistic, and utterly believable. These women seem like actual friends, their bonds keenly felt, making their perilous journey even more difficult to stomach. They aren’t picked off predictably or callously either; there’s real weight to each loss.
The demonic spirit acting as the antagonist is barely glimpsed, which is always scarier, particularly when it comes to paranormal fare, but what little we do see of it is truly nightmare-inducing. As with The Blair Witch Project, which is still #1 when it comes to this style of homemade movies, nothing actually needs to be there in the darkness for us, as viewers, to let our imaginations run wild trying to see it. Savage plays with this idea throughout, toying with light and shadows and, in one key moment, showing how sometimes reflections really are just that.
The script, credited to Savage, Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd, is self-aware without being annoyingly meta. References to quarantine abound, but the writers are wise enough not to rely too heavily on this strange time period to create tension, which could age the film exponentially (consider how powerful The Blair Witch Project still is, even though the tech, clothing, and slang has aged in the years since its release). Much like Unfriended, there isn’t a reliance on pointing out that the conversation is happening on a particular service either which, again, sidesteps any danger of rooting the story at a certain moment in time.
Likewise, although filters are utilized to remarkably creepy effect, they’re not relied on to trick us. As with any film of this nature, it’s much scarier to see something we’re used to seeing, or using, all the time twisted into something strange and off-kilter – a blanket used to reveal a ghostly presence is always going to pack more of a punch than evil-looking graphics on a computer screen but, here, both are implemented to throw us off balance. It’s never quite clear whether something is a regular ol’ computer glitch or the work of an otherworldly presence.
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Host is timely, because the world is burning down around us and plenty of us are still stuck in our homes, unsure of when/if we’ll be able to leave freely again. But it’ll likely stand the test of time too just because of how genuinely bloody scary it is. As much as so-called “over-hype” threatens to derail the movie, it’s worth noting that everything positive you’ve heard about it is true. Host is properly scary, often relentlessly tense, its 56-minute runtime offering a small respite from the pure terror that will surely be engulfing your body by the time the credits roll (good luck being alone in your home afterwards, too).
It’s a very special movie, not least because of the kind of world it’s being unleashed upon, but outside of that timeliness, an ignoring the discussion of masks and quarantine-appropriate drinks, Host is a solid, smart, and frequently very frightening horror movie. Even seasoned genre fans will be watching certain moments through their hands (I say that from experience).
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Rob Savage
Writer(s): Rob Savage, Gemma Hurley, Jed Shepherd
Stars: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward
Release date: July 30, 2020 (Shudder)
Studio/Production Company: Shadowhouse Films
Run Time: 56 minutes