HOST ***** UK 2020 Dir: Rob Savage. 57 mins
Rob Savage, director of the eerily effective “Ghost in the Wall” episode of 2018 anthology TRUE HORROR, makes a virtue of his own legally enforced restrictions with his Shudder movie HOST. It was shot during the national UK Coronavirus lockdown of Spring 2020, using as its backdrop the principal form of workplace communication during this period: the dreaded Zoom call. Distancing rules meant he never physically met his stars, who were responsible for the individual stunts and special effects in their individual segments. Savage’s target audience may cringe at the all too familiar spectacle of internet glitches on an overworked server and self-conscious on-camera participants – both of which form a crucial part of its triumph as a pandemic-era variant on past computer screen-based supernatural horror films. The premise openly borrows Stephen Volk’s GHOSTWATCH concept of a shared séance unleashing, via modern media, a malevolent presence upon different locations. The style apes the format of two decades worth of internet-driven genre films, from THE COLLINGSWOOD STORY to the UNFRIENDED movies. And yet, the execution is so good, the scares so potent and the timing so perfect that HOST feels fresh and thrilling.
Six friends make light of the changed world to which we are now all accustomed: “You have to hide a cough with a fart these days”. They’re preparing for a Zoom séance with drinks on standby, a slightly embarrassing Dad popping up on camera (he’s meant to be shielding) and a male character who has developed a man-bun (“twat knot”) during an extended period of closed hairdressers. Amidst the revelry and relatable Covid-humour, we are quietly primed for later scares: filters, signal drops, characters downing shots every time the online medium says the words “astral plane”. Clever use of very specific 2020 norms include a creepy sound that turns out to be the medium’s shopping delivery arriving later than expected. Characters are nimbly established and likeable. Everyone is warned that a séance on the internet is less protected than in normal circumstances and good-humoured banter gradually gives way to a growing sense of threat.
Less than an hour long but somehow managing to nail the balancing act of build-up, tension-relieving humour and sustained terror, HOST makes remarkable use of its multiple-screen format and even provides a strong narrative justification for the familiar horror movie “hoaxster” character. The Zoom medium, alongside all the elbow bumps, face masks and mood-breaking sneezes, will give this historical importance in years to come but, at heart, it’s simply a genuinely frightening modern ghost story with (for once) well-earned and superbly timed jump scares. The structure and story are models of economy, the actors craft believable friendships and, after scores of lazy found-footage consumer-camera horror films set in abandoned asylums, here we have an authentic evocation of being the only one cowering in fear after watching your friends die on multiple pixelating screens in the comfort of your own home. Plus, “turn the filters off…” might endure as one of the most chilling lines in early 21st century horror.
Review by Steven West