Let this review begin bluntly: a Zoom-centric horror film did not sound appealing at all. Found footage films have a pretty spotty track record, and computer screen films rarely warrant revisiting. For every The Blair Witch Project, there’s two or three The Gallows. And anyone worth their salt can foresee the glut of “quarantine” entertainment in the coming years. Could something so close to our bleak reality possibly be entertaining? If Shudder’s latest offering Host is any indication, the answer to that question is an undeniable “yes.”
Host follows six friends who decide to hold a séance on Zoom with the help of a medium. When one of them doesn’t take the process seriously, a malevolent force attaches itself to the group. To make matters worse, internet issues take the medium out of the equation, forcing the group to contend with the spirit on their own.
It’s an intriguing premise, one that the filmmakers wring maximum thrills out of. Not only are our characters facing ghosts, but they are all facing the challenges of quarantine. Though the characters are all onscreen together, the film never forgets to remind you that they are isolated, and that isolation makes each of them vulnerable.
The greatest strength that Host boasts is the platform it takes place on. Shooting a quarantine-set horror movie on the most popular video-conference platform could have been a disastrous, exploitative cash grab reliant on a gimmick. Director Rob Savage dodges that by making Zoom as much a character as any of the people onscreen. He takes the platform’s features and glitches and uses them to enhance the viewing experience. Due to this, the film is as realistic as any Zoom call you’ve been on in the last few months. In that grounded reality, the scares are even more effective when they come.
In fact, this movie is better experienced on a tablet or computer rather than a television screen. The scarce production gives the film a sense of true tension and danger, and in many ways is reminiscent of the granddaddy of all found footage flicks, The Blair Witch Project. A teary-eyed close up of a girl brings up memories of Blair Witch final girl Heather Donahue, and there are plenty of structural similarities, especially in the final act. That said, Host moves at a brisker pace and boasts more characters to torment and dispatch.
The characters aren’t exactly three-dimensional, but their respective cast members manage to imbue them with enough personality to make them unique. The fact that they’re all relatively unknown works to the film’s advantage as well; this could very well be your group of friends on this call. A few of them behave stupidly, which is the only unfortunate horror trope this movie uses, but it’s hardly a detractor. The characters are endearing, and their deaths hurt.
There’s not a scare in the film that doesn’t work. The script, co-written by Savage, Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd, doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. The writers plant seeds early on that grow into marvelous scares in the final act. Details that seem superfluous, like an overstuffed closet or a clever video background, pay off big later. The tension, helped rather than hurt by the sparse production, doesn’t let up. Host is designed to shred your nerves, from the moment the spirit arrives to the abrupt ending. The film is also a refreshingly short fifty-six minutes, which helps.
It may be unfair to compare Host to The Blair Witch Project, but the similarities are striking. Both use unknown casts and minimal production value to maximize scares. The actors filmed everything remotely, lighting their own scenes and performing their own in camera effects under the direction of Savage. It’s truly a feat of low budget filmmaking that will be hard to top. Host won’t have the cultural impact of Blair Witch, which had help from its revolutionary marketing campaign, but it’s every bit as effective.
We undoubtedly need good escapism in these troubling times. Host does convey the frustrations of lockdown. However, it also uses that baggage to craft an innovative slice of genre entertainment. Filmmakers should take note: this is how you do computer screen films in 2020.
Overall Score: 4.5/5
Host is streaming now exclusively on Shudder.