Directed by Rob Savage
By now you’re probably sick of reviewers looking at every new release through the lens of Covid. Hell, I know I’ve done it when covering The Platform or The Wolf Hour, though others have done it for The Beach House or After Midnight too: the right films for the wrong time. However, Rob Savage’s latest release Host holds the title of being, to my knowledge, the first real Coronavirus movie. Written and shot over the last 12 weeks, it’s a testament to the work ethic of this team that they’ve not only made a movie under these conditions but made a darn good one too. Making theirs the most productive use of lockdown I’ve heard about so far –respect to them. I reckon a lot of us will have been making the arse-dent in our sofas bigger.
Host cleverly uses a set-up that’s bound to be familiar to folks now, taking place over an evening Zoom session – if you invested in them before March you’ll be laughing. Hailey (Bishop) and her five friends are probably just like you: easing their cabin fever by hanging our virtually to share some drinks and some laughs, as their connections waver. During the first ten minutes or so we see their home lives, how they’ve been coping and get a good feel for their personalities and their friendship. Each is relatable, and it’s rewarding to see common scenarios like partners moving in too quickly, parents refusing to wear masks and people having fun with filters. Savage has a wonderful sense of their ordinary. Only while you lot may be passing the time by doing quizzes, or playing online games, they’ve decided to contact the dead via a virtual séance courtesy of Seylan (Baxter). She’s an experienced medium with a creepy house and a single rule: respect the spirts. Unfortunately, that’s lost on Hailey’s friends, who would mostly take this to mean putting the cap back on the bottle after they’re done.
It’d be easy to dismiss Host as an Unfriended knock-off (or 2002’s The Collingswood Story if you want to flex). There are superficial similarities between them since both are desktop flicks. However, in terms of its writing and presentation, Host is a more substantial and less gimmicky piece of work. For instance, nobody leaves the chat to Google exposition or go on YouTube. It also concentrates more on characters than cruel twists, and is more of a technical achievement since Savage never stepped foot in his actors’ houses (making them each stunt coordinators!). There’s a rare authenticity to the film too, with the cast evidently being fond of each other, and sharing the kind of rapport people can’t easily fake. Since they all go by real names, and their performances are naturalistic, I wouldn’t be surprised if this lot hang out all the time. I can also only imagine everyone involved had a great time giggling with each other between and during takes. Yeah, there’s some suspension of disbelief – everyone’s door is conveniently open, nobody’s flatmates ever tell them to shut up, and it becomes night pretty quickly. But these genre trapping aside, it is remarkably genuine. Heck, it’s only available via streaming. Make it super immersive by watching on your laptop, having some beers and occasionally talking into a faulty mic to ask the characters if they can hear you yet. It’s not like anybody has to see you.
Still, maybe all this time indoors has left you more interested in seeing people getting killed off than getting along. And that’s fine too – Host has you covered. The usual found footage template is to start small, before leading to a finale in which the people we’ve gotten to know are dragged off-screen backwards, tossed around the room or the camera falls to the floor. Host sticks roughly to this outline, with a prolonged third act which full of jumps and effects that’ll leave you asking “how the hell did they do that?” Seasoned horror fans will have seen some of the scare sequences before, which I’d put down to limitations with how to dispatch characters using a mostly static camera. However, I have rarely seen them done in a way that is this relentless or effective.
Admittedly, the insanity of the last twenty-five minutes or so comes at the expense of an abrupt transition between the first and second acts. Personally, I know I’d have liked to learn more from the clairvoyant or see her summon the ghosts with something more elaborate. The threat is also not well characterised, aside from some motifs in the iconography. Still, these relatively minor omissions are understandable because of the decision to make the movie fit within a single hour-long Zoom session. One of the benefits of making it for Shudder is not everything has to be stretched out to feature-length, and I think things like this gain from a shorter, punchier running time. The baddy, that joins us in watching their chat is not developed, rather than underdeveloped – an important distinction. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, since the characters are reacting to a new situation as it unfolds and perhaps exposition would have slowed the pace. Whereas in its present form it *tee-hee* zooms by. Besides, an extra five minutes would be welcome, but it’s often the sign we’re having a decent time.
I’ve said before that this is a particularly exciting era to be a horror fan. There are so many fresh voices on the indie circuit, and every so often a movie comes out that you know is going to be a game-changer. For me, Host is one of those: a state of the nation horror, about six friends who want to fight a clear and present malaise, then pay a tragically high price. Like Death of a Vlogger, also this year, it shows what movie makers can achieve with a good idea, the right team and minimal resources. My first encounter with Savage’s work was the superb short Dawn of the Deaf (in which Bishop, Drandova and Ward appeared). Through watching that, and then later speaking with him about it, I knew he would be one to look out for. I’m delighted to be vindicated, and can’t applaud him and everyone else involved enough for making one of the best films of the year out of a bad situation.
Host is available on Shudder.