[Movie Review] HOST

[Movie Review] HOST
Courtesy of Shudder
HOST is an innovative, timely, and terrifying Zoom-based horror film that mines classic found footage tropes for fresh new scares and uses technological and logistical limitations to its advantage, creating a narrative that feels utterly of the moment and timeless at the same time. A group of friends—played by Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, and Edward “Teddy” Linard, who all use their own names in the film—get together for a lockdown séance, hiring a medium (Seylan Baxter) to guide them into the astral plane via Zoom call. This being a horror movie, the séance goes horribly awry, and the friends must figure out how to banish the evil spirit that they’ve unwittingly welcomed into our world before it’s too late.

Like a lot of people, I had no idea what Zoom was prior to the coronapocalypse. Now Zoom seems to be the primary mode of communication, providing the platform for everything from business conferences to family reunions to college lectures to girls’ nights. In the face of film and television productions shutting down, people have wondered, “What are they going to do now, just make movies via Zoom?” Yes, evidently, they are: writers Gemma Hurley, Jed Shepherd, and Rob Savage, who also directed, did just that. They made quarantine art, using the inability to film together as a way to tap into our collective cultural horror and make a wildly inventive, scary, and fun movie in the process.

HOST feels very natural—there’s an ease and camaraderie amongst the cast, all of whom have very different but very relatable reactions to what’s happening to them. (Tag yourself: I’m Caroline, who refuses to investigate mysterious noises in her attic, opting instead to use a selfie stick to show the others what may or may not be lurking just over her head.) Before the séance begins, the movie covers a range of pandemic experiences that feel painfully and/or hilariously familiar: the awkwardness of talking to a friend who doesn’t know how Zoom works; the collective embarrassment of quarantine hair and hygiene; the struggle of keeping older relatives safe when they’re too stubborn to obey lockdown orders; and the problems with pandemic move-ins, where quarantine measures have pushed romantic relationships to move a bit too fast.

The cast all operated their own cameras, lit their own scenes, and even helped pull off their own practical effects. It’s an astonishing achievement. Knowing that the cast did so much of the work on their own, I was tempted to rewind when particularly chilling effects happened because they felt so seamless and so sophisticated that I was in disbelief, but I was too wrapped up in the story to go back very often. The lighting was also incredible in its variety and effectiveness: Jemma’s room glowed an unearthly blue, for example, whereas Haley’s apartment was swallowed up in inky hallways that seemed to stretch on forever. Each actor’s screen captured a different quality of shadows, further convincing viewers that the darkness itself was alive.

The words “Zoom horror movie” may make you leery of a quick and cheap “ripped from the headlines” film or one that will look dated within a few months, but rest assured: this is a smart, thoughtful, and ingeniously produced film. Even if we do soon return to a pre-pandemic way of life, HOST feels like a movie that will age well. Not only does it serve as an accurate account of the maddening isolation so many are experiencing right now and the creative ways people are coping with the frustrations of quarantine, but it’s also a rock-solid horror film that knows its audience, brilliantly subverting viewer expectations at every turn.

Part of the terror of found footage films is their immediacy—the viewer feels like they’re right there with the characters in an intimate, visceral way—combined with the sensation of helplessness that comes from watching horrible things happen to people in real-time. HOST knows exactly how to manipulate this tension, making excellent use of the Zoom format that alternates between a thumbnail view of all participants and a fullscreen image of the person currently speaking. Rather than searching just one frame for a threat that may be hiding in the shadows, the viewer sometimes has six or seven frames to contend with; oftentimes in horror, what we don’t see is much scarier than what we do see, so when a character’s video drops off, we’re terrified of what we imagine could be happening to them. Likewise, it’s sometimes impossible to tell who’s speaking on a Zoom call, so when the characters hear a mysterious knocking, they can’t identify the source…the evil spirit could be behind any of the characters at any time. In HOST, dread creeps in from every corner.

The film makes canny use of classic creepy horror props and modern face filters and video backgrounds, displaying an impressive grasp of modern technology and horror history. Though it’s filled with squirm-inducing tension and terrifying jump scares, there’s something almost comforting about the plot’s focus on the importance of respecting occult forces. It’s nice to know that some things haven’t changed, that there will always be fools in horror movies who don’t know better than to anger the spirit world or invite demons into their homes.

The best way to watch HOST is on your laptop or tablet alone in the dark. You feel like you’re on the call yourself, laughing along with friends, skeptically watching the medium guide you through the séance, and then helplessly witnessing barely glimpsed horrors befall your only connections to the outside world. HOST demonstrates how vulnerable we all are and how tenuous our connections to each other—and to reality as we know it—can be. It’s a timely record of the bizarre horror story we’re all living through right now and a nail-biting hour of suspense, combining mundane and supernatural terrors into one masterful found footage film.

The Zoom-centric horror film, HOST, premieres exclusively on Shudder tomorrow, July 30.

Jessica Scott
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