Socially Distanced Shivers: Host (2020)
Warning: Contains spoilers.
I heard about Host via Twitter, where it was highly recommended by a couple of British comedians whose taste I trust. I’m always initially a little suspicious of films that seem to hang on a gimmick. In this case, all the action takes place via Zoom, making it the most ‘2020’ of horror movies. But having been impressed by Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, starring John Cho and similarly confined to a computer screen, I was willing to give it a go. Plus the runtime is under an hour — who hasn’t got 57 minutes to gamble?
The first thing that stands out about Host is the quality of the performances. Everything happening on the individual screens feels totally natural, the kind of socially distanced catch-up session with your university mates that has been a feature of many of our lives in recent months. The necessary exposition is handled with the lightest of touches (Autopsy of Jane Doe, take note), but we soon have a rounded picture of this group of old friends, with hints toward the past romances and personality-clash tensions that linger between them. The range of lockdown locations on display reflects the reality behind the convenient ‘we’re all in this together’ messaging of the pandemic. Some of our new friends are holed up in claustrophobic new build flats or converted terraces, others have retreated to the family home or, in one case, a new girlfriend’s lavish estate, complete with pool and creepy clown puppet. But by the evening’s end, they will all end up in the same place.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about what happens next. In our high-definition age, the juddery imperfections of live streamed video are a gift to that part of our brains that conjures up menacing figures in the dark. Director Rob Savage does a masterful job of building tension and timing the jump scares just right, lingering past the point where Paranormal Activity and its ilk have trained us to expect a bump in the night before springing the trap. The particulars of video conferencing, from animated backgrounds to face filters, are used sparingly but to good dramatic effect. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Caroline investigates a mysterious sound in the attic, putting a fresh spin on the old trope by poking her phone camera up there on the end of a selfie stick.
As you would expect from such a tight runtime, the film leaves many questions unanswered. Why was Haley so keen to instigate this particular activity with her group of friends? Her movements as we watch her prepare for the call seem to hint at a nervousness in her apartment; did she suspect a presence and want to bring it to the surface? Was that why she urged her friends to take the whole experience seriously? Also surprising is that Jemma, the character whose joking around seemed to trigger the darker turn of events, isn’t threatened in her own home. It is only when she runs to Haley’s flat — perhaps out of a sense of guilt — that she too is attacked by the spirit. After finding Haley somehow still alive, because evil spirits apparently don’t check under desks, the girls don’t attempt to flee or even switch on a light. Instead, Haley seems determined to capture the presence with her Polaroid camera, hinting that her intention all along was for her friends to bear witness to the existence of the supernatural; something she appears to believe in, given that she has worked with Medium Saytan before. As the call is cut short, we are left to wonder; is Haley also the innocent victim? Or, as the Host of the title, did she knowingly lead her friends into a dark place?
With the film receiving a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, perhaps we’ll learn more in Host 2…
Verdict: Like this review, short and sweet. No real hidden depths, just a well executed thrill ride with a contemporary twist. Well worth a watch next time you fancy a scare.