REVIEW: Zoom-based horror ‘Host’ (2020) is short, sharp and scary

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“A dark, devilish reminder of a terrible and very strange year.”

The pandemic has taught us many things, and now we know that Zoom calling a demon is conclusively a bad idea. The credit goes to British director Rob Savage’s ingenious Zoom-based horror and Shudder Original, Host. The premise is simple: a group of bored friends conduct a séance through their laptop screens during a pandemic. We can all relate. 

When done well, found-footage films offer a level of intimacy that you just don’t get from anything else. Two years ago we had Aneesh Chaganty’s surprisingly emotional thriller Searching (2018), which worked on the strength of John Cho’s performance and the film’s craft. Telling the story entirely through video calls and cameras was a restriction deliberately enforced to make everything seem as clever and immediate as possible. The problem with this is that the desktop gimmick becomes harder to shake off the further along the film goes. Gimmicks – whether it’s the impressive tracking shots of 1917 (2019) or the shaky camcorder of Cloverfield (2008) – are always initially interesting, until they’re not, and then they become a distraction to the story.

Host is a little different in that the pandemic that forces the remote interaction in the film and its construction is real. Savage didn’t step foot in any of the locations, choosing to direct everything remotely. The actors also had to work apart and set up their own stunts for the feature. Found-footage films have naturally always had a problem with believability and, for the most part, Savage conjures a believable atmosphere within a silly scenario. Host creates a virtual space that feels intimate and inviting, but above all else, it is offers something immediately recognisable. We experience social distancing and lockdown measures every single day, so right away it’s easy to feel connected to the events on screen and the characters experiencing them. 

This is also a rare example of a film best watched on a monitor rather than a 50-inch flat-screen with surround sound. In this case, the visual and audio confusion of unstable internet connections and murky darkness is the entire point. Rather than simply giving the impression that you’re watching a real-time Zoom call, observing this film through the boxy frames of a laptop screen goes a long way into connecting you with the horror that is taking place. Aside from not being able to talk to any of the characters, for everything else you might as well be a part of the séance and Host nails this. The actors are also uniformly good, bantering, and eventually screaming, to their gruesome ends. However scary or dumb you may find its cheap premise; the construction of the film is a treat.

At a skeletal sixty minutes, Savage wastes no time in getting in and out with sharp, nasty scares. Technological mishaps, door bangs and chair slides all rear their familiar paranormal heads, but the utilisation of Zoom adds another layer to the horror through its inherent design, with clever use of various features such as unsettling Zoom backgrounds and quirky filters. And with up to six screens occupying the frame at any one time, you almost get to watch the film however you want. Savage directs your attention towards one screen, but something could be happening to the box on your left. It allows room for increased viewer engagement, creating a more personal experience than we usually get. It comes with the added benefit of making you lean forward to look closer, making the jumps even greater.

Host is also funnier than expected. Whether this is a result of Zoom, the pandemic or entirely accidental remains to be seen, but there’s an unmistakable thread of dark humour throughout. A few nods to the Coronavirus bring a fleeting smile, from coughing stigma to elbow greetings. When a character puts on a mask before fleeing outside and away from a demonic entity, it’s too absurd and timely to come across as anything but hilarious. With a steady stream of comedy and deft handling of the multiple screens in shot, Savage has his film on a string, loosening or tightening the tension however much he wants. It keeps Host efficiently paced and exciting. 

However, the illusion, as is so often the case with horror, shatters as soon as people start flying around the room. It’s unfortunately still part and parcel of the possession subgenre, and despite the ingenuity of the Zoom-based setting, the cliched moments of Host dull its sense of thrilling immediacy. 

In the end, though, this is a small, sturdy and genuine success of resourceful filmmaking. It’s the same level of low-budget innovation that dropped with The Blair Witch Project (1999) and then a decade later with Paranormal Activity (2007) – and now we have Host, a film that speaks to us on nearly every level with its connection problems and face masks and demonic rage. Obvious limitations and contrivances creep into the frame, but if you know you like this sort of thing, you’ll love every minute.  

When we return to whatever normal is and the world looks back on 2020, it will be Host which occupies our computer screens. A dark, devilish reminder of a terrible and very strange year. Host deserves its moment in the spotlight and Savage’s next project should be monitored with a keen eye. 

Director: Rob Savage

Producers: Douglas Cox, Craig Engler, Emily Gotto, Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd, Samuel Zimmerman

Cast: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward

Release Date: 30 July 2020

Available on: Shudder

Featured image courtesy of Shudder