Host review: The definitive lockdown horror
James R | On 30, Jul 2020
Director: Rob Savage
Cast: Haley Bishop, Edward Linard, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb
These are scary times. There’s no point in sugarcoating it. Fear of losing loved ones, fear of passing something on to friends unwittingly, fear of not being able to overcome your nerves outside of your home. While Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion has become the pertinent horror movie for this pandemic age, a new contender has emerged from Shudder: Host.
Horror has always excelled as a reflection of the world, whether that’s something wider, such as social tensions, or personal, such as grief. It’s also a genre that’s well suited to moving with the times, technologically speaking. With the mainstream availability and affordability of home video came The Blair Witch Project, which took the haunted house movie and turned it into a haunted forest movie. Now, found footage has moved online, and web cam spine-tinglers such as Paranormal Activity have upgraded to computer-set chillers such as Unfriended. Host is a film about a Zoom meeting that goes horribly wrong – if you thought a haunted house was bad, try a webinar.
If that sounds laughable, it almost is, if it weren’t for the fact that Host so deftly, thoughtfully delves into what it’s like to live with Zoom as a constant common link between us; it’s as essential as it is familiar, and Host gets that on both a visual level (with recognisable elements such as a countdown to a free meeting expiring) and on emotional level. Because the only thing scarier than the thought of an evil spirit in your living room? The thought that you might have to face it alone. This is a story of people wanting to reach out and support their friends as much as they want to hide under the duvet by themselves, and Zoom is both the necessary window on to other people’s lives and the portal that prevents them from escaping what they see unfold on-screen.
And boy, what sights they are. Director Rob Savage, who co-wrote the script with Gemma Hurley and frequent collaborator Jed Shepherd, has repeatedly proven to be one of British horror’s most interesting new voices; shorts such as Salt and Dawn of the Deaf have juggled high-concept ideas with distinctive, witty ingenuity. It’s no surprise, then, to say that Host is one of the most innovative horror movies in recent memory, juggling classic tropes – cupboards, attics, doors, polaroid cameras – with an immediacy that’s fresh and new.
The remarkable visual effects are terrifyingly tangible and unnervingly plausible, and even more impressive when you consider that they’re executed by actors working in lockdown – and co-ordinated by a director working remotely, never meeting any of the cast in person.
The ensemble of young friends – Haley (Haley Bishop), Teddy (Edward Linard), Radina (Radina Drandova), Caroline (Caroline Ward), Jemma (Jemma Moore) and Emma (Emma Louise Webb) – are introduced swiftly and gel just as quickly, chatting about the weirdness of pandemic life. Savage, who made his debut with the tender no-budget drama Strings, has lost none of his knack for capturing human relationships, with one early background conversation, which unfolds with the mic muted, brilliantly observed. But any sense of normality is dispelled when the group are joined by a clairvoyant (Seylan Baxter), who leads a virtual seance.
The film knows when to undermine things with humorous touches, such as online deliveries and bad internet connections, but equally gets when to dial up the tension, and the film is at its best when casting everyday concepts in an alien light; the inspired use of lenses and a smart play upon virtual backgrounds find eerie resonance alongside the low-fi creepiness of footsteps and moving chairs.
Cleverly wrapping things up in under an hour, the result finds new horror in old tricks, balancing relatable frustrations of lockdown life with the unsettling, gnawing fear of isolation. It’s a calling card for a promising director, a masterclass in low-budget production and, most of all, will genuinely make you jump every few minutes. If you weren’t sure about leaving the house, this will give you a good reason to go outside for some fresh air – and get as far away from your computer as possible.