Host (2020) gives techno-horror a short, sharply-observed shock.
As the pandemic lockdown has made most of us aware, there’s really nothing to compare with the mind-numbing terror and terrifyingly mind-numbing experience of a Zoom meeting so it’s little wonder that it would become the setting for Shudder’s breakout horror hit.
Six friends hire a medium to hold a seance via Zoom during the COVID-19 lockdown, but when one of their party doesn’t take it seriously, the spiritual doorway is accidentally opened to a malevolent spirit and things quickly get out of control.
Although its set-up echoes “Unfriended” and “Ouija”, “Host” can trace its lineage more directly to found footage classics such as “Paranormal Activity” and “The Blair Witch Project”. Whereas “Unfriended” and “Ouija” both adopted variations on a J B Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, “Host” is much more about a malevolent spirit out to fuck shit up for the sheer mean-spirited fun of it.
Above everything, there’s a tremendous amount of love for the genre on display and the filmmaking craft is impressive enough before you factor in the challenges of mounting this kind of production during a lockdown.
There’s a playfulness to Rob Savage’s direction throughout. He knows the horror tropes and knows that you know them too so he fills the frame with teases for things which may or may not be significant, my particular favourite being the way each call participant is framed in front of an open doorway.
Much like “The Blair Witch Project”, the first half of the movie suffers a little bit from sluggish pacing and a lack of real incident but once the unnamed spirit really manifests the fun really begins. It makes clever use of its relatively static, split-screen set-up and manages to deliver some amusing jump scares although inevitably as things ramp up, it runs into the challenge that all found-footage films have to contend with: finding credible reasons why people would continue to film – especially themselves – while the world goes mad around them. The performances are solid for the most part,
The inciting incident is a clever twist in that by not respecting the process, one of the victims inadvertently invites their doom and there’s a sly sense of humour running through it, even towards the last frenetic twenty minutes. There’s clever use of the various features of Zoom, including face filters and virtual backgrounds and it manages some genuinely chilling moments involving the most innocuous of household items.
The penultimate ‘kill’ literally made me gasp but the final – eminently predictable – attack made me laugh out loud and while the filmmaking technique is consistently great, the script and structure are somewhat uneven, with a few characters dropping out of the movie abruptly and then returning without real explanation only to meet a grisly end and it’s a shame that, although they invoke Zoom’s freebie account 40-minute time limit, they don’t manage to stick to telling the story in real-time. Were it a 90-minute movie you could overlook it but when the run time for the film is barely 16 minutes more, it feels like an obvious miss not to include the termination of the call and attempts to reconnect as part of the plot. The credits are wittily rendered within the Zoom app, though.
It’s a great way to pass an hour – and probably more fun than virtually any Zoom call you’ve participated in – but love for the genre and great technique isn’t quite enough to make this short film match the hype.