Host (2020)

Directed by: Rob Savage. Starring: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb. Runtime: 57 min. Released: July 30, 2020.

At the start of this 2020 pandemic, it seemed like teleconferencing platform Zoom came out of nowhere, usurping Skype. Now, I only use Skype to chat before going onto Zoom. Skype walked so Zoom could run, and similarly, 2014’s Unfriended walked so the new horror phenomenon Host could run.

Filmed and directed by Rob Savage over Zoom, Host follows a group of six friends who, during the lockdown, decide it would be fun to hold a séance over Zoom. Things quickly spiral out of control as their medium, Seylan (Seylan Baxter), gets disconnected from them and a malicious spirit starts invading their homes.

While demons over the Internet isn’t exactly new (see: Unfriended), Host makes it feel fresh as the characters’ situation escalates. It’s a simple premise that works so effectively because of the characters. The characters and the actresses all have the same name and throughout the film, the acting’s so authentic as it seems like they’re just simply reacting to the situation as it comes. It’s also refreshing to watch because this truly feels like a real-life friend group (and they are) as their chemistry is stellar and makes this film a lot funnier than I expected it to be, just with their dialogue and how they take a shot every time the medium says “astral plane.”

For actual character development, they’re made distinct from each other with how they react or their roles in the film; Haley (Haley Bishop) is the host of the meeting and the one who sets up the séance, and Jemma (Jemma Moore) is the one who doesn’t take the séance as seriously. Both Emma (Emma Louise Webb) and Caroline (Caroline Ward) seem unnerved by the prospect of the séance.

There’s also some clever character development here as aspects of the COVID-19 lockdown are brought into their characters, like Caroline not wanting her father to go outside so much because he’s at risk, or Radina (Radina Drandova) living with her new boyfriend Alan (Alan Emrys) during lockdown. Also present is a character called Teddy (Edward Linard), who can best be described as the comic relief here and has some great moments, and some of the props around his house – a creepy clown and a music box – create some of the film’s creepiest moments.

The film only clocks in at a concise 57 minutes as well, so the time to develop these characters is limited but we know all we need to know about them. Some moments with these characters really hit for me, like when Jemma first tells her story about “Jack” which gave me goosebumps because of the creepy dialogue and the effective acting. I cared about these people, not to a point where I wanted them to live because this a horror film and there’s no fun in that, but I really liked this cast all the same. Everyone gets their chance to shine, from Caroline investigating an attic to Emma hiding under covers, everyone gets in on the happy spookies.

Host review
Emma Louise Webb, Jemma Moore, Caroline Ward, Radina Drandova and Haley Bishop in Host. (IMDb)

We’re all here for the séance anyway, and the screenplay by Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley gets us into that quickly and the film never let’s go. I loved being scared during this film and while horror is one of my favourite genres, Host reminded me how much of a chicken I am. Whenever someone would take their camera down a hallway, it triggered my flight or fight response and I was ready to fight anything that came at my screen. There are super effective jump scares throughout the film but the atmosphere we’re trapped in throughout is so strong. Even a simple scene like Seylan the medium answering her door and her not coming back right away is intense because of the threat of them being without a medium to monitor everything, and the waiting is just great. I find some horror films just throw out jump scares with shrapnel accuracy to see what sticks, but in Host, I think every scare got me.

This is all impressively made, too, for everyone having their own camera set-ups and this being directed over Zoom. It may be notable for being the first film made during the pandemic, but I think it’s more than. It’s a scary film and people seem to be enjoying it because it is scary, and not because it’s just a pandemic movie. I think it has cult classic potential, too, as it’s a new favourite of mine after two viewings. Though, I will note, I preferred watching it on my laptop because that felt more immersive with the Zoom aspect.

The reason for this film being so short is also so clever and I enjoyed how the features of Zoom are incorporated into the film (like the 40-minute limit and different filters). I don’t think I would have wanted a 90-minute film because the editing (by Brenna Rangott) is so precise and the pacing and length are both perfect. I also didn’t want 90 minutes because I don’t think I could have taken 30 more minutes of scares.

Once the scares start, they’re fast and furious and the only time Rob Savage let’s us breathe is an improvised moment where Haley sneezes. It’s great as it cuts the tension as everyone tries to stay in character, but Jemma chuckles behind her hand. It works perfectly for the story at that moment as the characters think the threat is over. A moment like this is great and it didn’t take me out of the film, it just adds to the authentic, real-time feel of Host. I felt like a fly-on-the-wall watching a real Zoom call as shit gets real.

Score: 88/100

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