‘Host’ (2020) Review

I love October. I like to treat the whole month as one long Halloween and that includes watching horror movies. Though this is the second year of 31 Days, 31 Horror Movies for ScreenAge Wasteland, this’ll be the 10th year I’ve treated the whole month as a sort of personal horror film festival, watching and reviewing a horror movie every day. There ARE a few rules I try and follow, which are:

  1. I try and watch a movie a day, but I might not get to write it up for a day or two.
  2. And then I try and write up some rambling, barely coherent post about it.
  3. It’s got to be a horror movie (straight sci-fi, thrillers and mysteries are generally out, though rules are made to be broken).
  4. No set watch-list. I’ll decide that day what I’ll watch (and I’ll take recommendations under consideration). The only exception is if I get an itching for a particular film and I don’t currently have access – I’ll plan around when I can rent/borrow/buy it.
  5. I’m planning to do theme weekends. Creature Feature is the staple, and we’ll see what we can come up with for the others (last year I did Slasher Remakes, a Sea Creature Double Feature and The Foundations of J-Horror.)
  6. Probably should go without saying, but there are bound to be spoilers galore.

Dem’s the rules! Now let’s get to this year’s first movie. (Note: if you’re following along with ScreenAge’s 31 Days of Halloween you may want to skip reading this until after the 17th!)

“Happy Spookies.”

I’ve been hearing about Host from a lot of places recently – social media mostly – and had pretty much settled on watching it first for 31 Days a month or so ago. I don’t usually make those sorts of plans with 31 Days as I like the freedom of choosing what I’m in the mood for on any given day, but the buzz about Host guaranteed that I would at least still be interested by the time October 1 rolled around. In addition, the film seemed to fall squarely into one of my weak spots – that being a fondness for the found footage sub-genre of horror. (Though this probably fits into yet a smaller niche – screen footage horror, maybe?)

I also liked the idea of a film shot within the restrictions we were all dealing with – the shoot started while the cast and crew were still under lockdown somewhere in the UK and made use of the Zoom video conference platform. While I love most kinds of horror films the ones that use our everyday life as a backdrop really stand out to me – from Night of the Living Dead on down. It puts the horror where you are and uses our shared experience against us.

Anticipation and expectation can sometimes work against a film, though, and I started to be a little anxious as October approached. Was I putting too much on the film? Was I going to engage in that slightly self-sabotaging thing I do where the more a film is pushed at me the less likely I am to enjoy it? At 57 minutes was the film going to be too short to accomplish much?

And really the bottom line of all that worry was: what if I just didn’t like it? That’s always a concern for me when starting 31 Days. It’s a superstition, I guess. I worry starting off with a bad movie bodes ill for the month. I was very close to bailing on Host and choosing something else for my initial film this year. I’m glad I didn’t.

The Medium
Host is a Shudder exclusive. Shudder has done well with their exclusives lately, and they make it well worth a sub – even if it’s only for the month of October.

The Movie
Host is essentially about a video chat séance gone wrong. If you (lucky you) have never had to use Zoom (or Google Meet or Microsoft Teams or Facebook Rooms or whatever), the conceit of the film is that it all takes place during a group video call. Multiple people will join using their laptop webcam or phone camera and interact through an interface that includes video feeds from each person. I’ve had several of these over the course of the pandemic so far and Host manages to feel like any given one of them – though less like the ones conducted for work. (And how long before someone makes a version of something like The Belko Experiment using Zoom? Not long, I’m guessing.)

Haley (Haley Bishop) sets up a ‘séance’ with her friends as a way to do something fun together during lockdown. She’s even got a ‘professional’ medium, Seylan (Seylan Baxter) to conduct the proceedings, though Seylen does warn everyone that doing this without being able to hold hands is a little dangerous. It’s all in good fun, though, right? And as long as everyone takes it seriously everything should be fine.

Director and writer Rob Savage and fellow screenwriters Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd have a little fun with some of the standard video conference issues – feedback when there are multiple devices in the same room on the same call, poor connections, video backgrounds and even the inevitable interruption as take out arrives just as things are getting going. This sort of ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ with the audience can be annoying if done too much, but the filmmakers have managed to thread that needle (and also re-use some of those same elements to horrific effect later on).

The actresses and actors don’t have much time to flesh out their characters, so their introductions are necessarily truncated. There’s the host, Haley, our original POV character and the one who is probably the most straightforwardly ‘normal.’ Then there’s Jemma (Jemma Moore) who is a bit of a prankster and who can’t take the whole thing seriously. Emma (Emma Louise Webb) is the goofy sprite who loves her Snapchat filters almost as much as she loves her dad. Caroline (Caroline Ward) is the most nervous about the whole thing and needs reassurance. Radina (Radina Drandova) is the most serious, perhaps because she’s still in lockdown with her boyfriend, which might have been a bad idea. Rounding out the group is Teddy (Teddy Linard), the bohemian, top-knot sporting layabout whose girlfriend gets him to bail out on the whole thing early in the proceedings.

Despite their economical introductions each character feels well realized, which is important because they’re all front and center in a way that a regular movie doesn’t require. It’s literally the actors faces, in closeup, for a good chunk of the time. If there were any false notes we’d see it, and there’d be nowhere to hide. Luckily all the performers are up to the task, and Savage even manages to use their profile photos – appearing briefly as people join or drop from the call – to give us a little more info about each character. Our profile photos are, after all, the representations of ourselves we want people to see. Those are fleeting, but it’s a nice touch.

You can’t really have a horror film if things don’t start going wrong at some point, and go wrong they do. A misjudged prank leaves the group open to the influence of what might be called a ‘walk in’ – an uninvited presence, person – or thing. With the connection to their guide, Seylen, proving unreliable the group needs to figure out a way to end the séance while they still can.

Host uses the format to create some great jump scares – I’ll never be quite as comfortable with someone’s animated background, for instance – but doesn’t depend on them to the point of being simpley a gimmick. This isn’t just a “Zoom” movie trading on nothing more than a current trend. Savage and his compatriots know horror – there are a ton of movie related easter eggs to be found, if you look – and have a great sense of when to ratchet up the tension and when to pay it off. There are some issues with moments that are lost to visual noise as laptops or phones move too quickly or audio that’s not quite clear. These are inherent to the format, though, and at least there’s no nausea-inducing ‘running through the woods/halls’ moments, nor long arguments while people walk in night-vision.

There are a few other classic found footage moments, though, with the camera panning by half-glimpsed figures, things that can’t be seen by the naked eye but are revealed by technology (though, strangely, not the always by the webcams – a Polaroid camera is used for a couple of scenes), and unseen forces that move things and people around.

The early parts of the film come dangerously close to being too long, despite the short running time, but things start to crank up just when your attention might start wandering. By the time the end is approaching – with an ingenious use of the “time limit” aspect of a Zoom chat – you’ll have forgotten all about those slow moments and will be leaning in, trying to figure out exactly what you’re seeing along with the characters. Before it’s too late.

The Bottom Line
There have been other “screen footage” horror movies, Unfriended and Searching, for instance, but what Host most reminds me of isn’t one of those. What it most reminds me of isn’t really a found-footage horror movie at all, but rather the 1992 BBC special, Ghostwatch. It’s got that same feeling of watching something that’s really happening, and the same delicious sense of horror as things go increasingly wrong.

I watched Host on the big screen in my basement and it worked fine – and definitely helped with picking out details in the background. I do think there’s never been a film that would work better on the small screen, though. I plan on watching it again, and when I do it’ll be on a laptop, in my home office, with all the lights turned off. Like I’m part of the show.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.