By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb
Directed by Rob Savage
Written by Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd
Bored to death of your monthly Zoom cocktail hour? Too burned out to join yet another virtual D&D Campaign? Why not shake things up and summon a few unfriendly spirits from the comfort of your desk chair? Shudder invites viewers to a digital séance with HOST by director Rob Savage (Dawn of the Deaf), which makes clever use of the now-ubiquitous videotelephony service for an experience that’s immersive, timely, and scary-as-hell.
HOST stars Haley Bishop (Deep State), Jemma Moore (Doom: Annihilation), Emma Louise Webb (The Crown), Radina Drandova (Dawn of the Deaf), Caroline Ward (Stalling It), and Edward Lindard (The Rebels) as a group of friends who, while stuck at home during lockdown, contact a medium to hold a séance over Zoom. Though they initially view the situation as an excuse to take shots and crack jokes, they soon realize that they’ve awakened something supernatural…and it isn’t contained by the boundaries of their respective screens.
The Coronavirus pandemic has led to some noteworthy feats of artistic ingenuity, but HOST is easily one of the most impressive so far. Film is a collaborative medium, and this project, somewhat ironically, underlines that fact in bright colors, made as it was by a cast and crew who had zero physical contact during its making. Every stunt, scare, and practical effect was handled by the individual actors themselves, who were also tasked with lighting their own scenes. To maintain the safety afforded by social distance, Savage never set foot in the same room as his collaborators and did all of his directorial work remotely. It all sounds like the cloud-based equivalent of herding cats, and thankfully, the work pays off.
Though the easiest analog here is 2014’s Unfriended and its 2018 sequel, Dark Web, HOST feels realistic and of-its-moment in a way those films never managed to. In fact, one of the big hurdles those two earlier techno-chillers encountered was that it was a bit hard to believe that their casts lived such vibrant online lives, let alone that they would continue to stay logged in despite the dangers that presented themselves. 2020 has been a game changer in a lot of ways, and HOST smartly capitalizes on that fact by setting it in the immediate present and approaching Zoom with an appropriate sense of novelty as a tool that has suddenly become essential in a world that looks a hell of a lot different than it did a year ago. Savage also manages never to “cheat” on his concept like the Unfriended movies occasionally have to, stretching the inherent limits of his chosen medium rather than busting through them altogether.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and turn in unvarnished, naturalistic performances that really aid in the film’s sense of immersion. Adding further to this effect, all of the actors play versions of themselves, sharing their names with the characters. Unfolding over a brisk 56 minutes in real-time, HOST is perfectly paced. The stunt work (coordinated by Mat McKay and Nathaniel Martin) and effects (supervised by Steve Bray) deserve a special mention for being top-notch despite the production limits, though everything gets a tad overblown as HOST tries to keep one-upping itself on the way to its conclusion. Savage and company earn bigger scares when they keep things small, but despite the occasional lapse into excess, the lasting effect is one of genuine unease: that creepy crawly feeling of being “connected” yet utterly alone that’s become common to most of us of late, able only to watch in impotent terror as events unfold on the other side of a coldly glaring computer screen. Whether this tension was conscious or not on the part of the filmmakers is anyone’s guess, but HOST taps from a deeper, existential layer of fright that feels almost inadvertent.
HOST is an enterprising experiment in socially-distanced horror that leaps right out of your video conference window. Leading a game cast of actors who also do triple duty managing their own lighting and practical effects, Savage and his writing partners have used quarantine as an opportunity to create the first proper horror film of the Coronavirus era. Utilizing Zoom, with all its inherent strengths and limitations, HOST is an of-our-moment frightener whose storyline takes a back seat to its penetrating undertone of disconnected anxiety, made all the more impactful by how authentically it captures our now daily ritual of grasping for each other across the digital void. I’d amend that and say “minus the ghosts”…but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we’d best not rule anything out.
HOST is streaming now, exclusively on Shudder