A few months ago, I came up with an idea for a short film based around the loneliness that quarantine can invite: a young woman decides to use a Ouija board to communicate with the other side in hopes of feeling less alone. Soon enough, she is joined by a real ghost. Director Rob Savage and co-writers Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley go for a similar idea in their 60-minute film Host, which originally began as a two minute short film, but theirs is much scarier than mine.
Host follows six friends in lockdown who enlist a medium (Seylan Baxter) to guide them through a séance over Zoom. Things turn scary fast when they accidentally summon a demonic spirit. The entire film takes place on Haley’s (Haley Bishop) laptop as she’s the host, a modern found footage technique which makes for an immersive experience. Watching on your own laptop in the dark is like you’re a muted participant. Many of us have been using Zoom to conduct business and social engagements, making us so familiar with the service, and this only makes it all the more terrifying.
Set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Host provides a subtle commentary on what’s going on in the world, with the characters — Haley, Radina Drandova, Edward Linard, Jemma Moore, Caroline Ward and Emma Louise Webb — effectively playing themselves. There’s the outside threat of the virus, but what if our homes aren’t safe either? Then where do we go? In fact, the title Host has more than one meaning — you’re a host when possessed by a ghost or infected by a virus, and Haley is, of course, the Zoom host.
As the film was shot in quarantine, the actors operated their own cameras and set up all their own stunts and practical effects while Savage directed them through Zoom himself in order to maintain social distancing. The film, from conception to final product, took about 12 weeks. Considering the restrictions of the pandemic, what they pulled off is a credit to the talent of both the cast and crew. Host is a straightforward idea, but it’s highly successful and clever in its endeavours.
The séance really pulls you in. The simplicity of it is really effective. It starts off slow and builds just enough tension to become chilling. Even when things settle down, you’re still on edge. You’re constantly searching every frame for something that isn’t there. Personally, I’d like to thank Mike Flanagan for instilling this in me, with the terrifying ghosts hidden in the frames of The Haunting of Hill House. You can feel the presence of something alongside the characters and you live in fear, not knowing if it’s ever gonna show.
As a massive genre fan who has indulged in so much horror, there aren’t many films I’ve watched where I’ve had to hide behind my own hands. But that was the case for the entire second half of Host. In fact, I hid behind my notebook and used it as a shield. A flickering light was enough to make me jump, scream and hide: sometimes the old tricks are the best. The last 25 minutes or so are frightening — filled with constant tension, compelling dread and convincing jump scares. It’s a roller-coaster ride of fear and its tight and short script works to achieve this.
For as scary as it is, Host is thrillingly fun. Every moment of it is highly entertaining. It’s like watching a really good episode of Most Haunted—like the special featuring Girls Aloud (and I mean this as a huge compliment, despite how others may take it). Host doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the genre, but it pays homage to what are presumably Savage’s favourite scares — there’s ideas pulled from Unfriended, The Blair Witch Project, [Rec] and even this year’s The Invisible Man. For horror lovers, it’s a scary and enjoyable treat to indulge and get lost in.
Found footage horror quickly adapts and works with new technology to create exciting and relatable experiences, thus making it one of the most innovative genres. Host achieves exactly this as it plays on the circumstances of the pandemic and utilises the current most popular technology, right down to the key features of Zoom — the customisable backgrounds, face filters and the time limit on the free version — and it really pays off. Host isn’t trying to be something we haven’t seen before, but it’s trying to be straight up horror entertainment, and that’s exactly what it is. Let it take you.
Host is available to stream now on Shudder. Get a 30 day free trial with the code SHUTIN
by Toni Stanger
Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.
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