It was inevitable: someone finally made a horror movie shot on zoom during lockdown where everyone, cast, crew, and director, were in isolation in their homes. Host – now streaming on Shudder – has a deceptively simple premise: a bunch of friends, bored during the lockdown, decide to host a séance on zoom for fun. "Don't mess with seances or the supernatural" should be a fundamental safety rule in every horror movie, yet dumb kids always break it first chance they get, and we get the fun of watching them pay for it.
The result is a fun if predictable horror movie that only runs for 55 minutes. Things slowly go awry, and by the time the friends realise they're in deep trouble, it's already too late for all of them. Writer-director Rob Savage cleverly uses the unsteady point of view of a computer or phone camera to play up the lurking suspense of navigating a dark corridor, waiting for something to jump out at you. You do wonder why the hell someone is being so awkward as to take their whole laptop with them into another room, but the contrivance is actually explained – they want their friends on the zoom feed to see what they're seeing because they don't want to be alone. The characters also follow typical horror movie tropes of people going to investigate spaces and rooms they definitely should stay the hell away from. It's the slasher film dynamic where the characters need to do something staggeringly dumb in order for the horror to happen to them.
Cast members Caroline Ward, Emma Louise Webb, Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Edward Linard, and Radina Drandova all act and talk like real people – no clichéd dialogue you get from horror scripts because they were improvising their lines and reactions without a script. Savage kept the shocks and scares from his actors so their reactions would be as real and authentic as possible.
Filmmaking in the Age of Lockdown
Full disclosure: I have a vested interest in seeing how other people would make a movie using zoom in lockdown since I just finished making my own. Rob Savage has the huge advantage of a proper budget. He made a 2-minute proof of concept to partly prank his friends on zoom and then used it to get financing for the 55-minute movie. You can see his original short here:
Savage has the advantage of a proper budget – money always solves the problem of resources on any production. On Comisery, we had literally no money, only our actors sitting in front of their computers. I say this without envy or jealousy: money cures any practical problem. Savage set out to make a much more technically ambitious movie than ours, and he had the budget to afford it. He had a stunt team, a VFX team, pyrotechnics, CGI. His teams were all isolating together in locations that enabled them to create the scenes and effects to edit into the movie. It's a technically and logistically complex production that he pulls off here with aplomb. I'm sure like me and my co-director, he has discovered the joy of being able to direct a movie without having to leave his house.
An Update of the British Ghost Story
British culture has always had an affinity for ghost stories. Ever since M.R. James and short stories, Henry James' The Turning of the Screw and the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas, the British, while claiming to be nonbelievers in the supernatural, have always enjoyed the spooky, creepy fear of the unknown, of something sinister and malevolent lurking in wait in the dark, intent on harming you. They also have a long-running fascination with seances and summoning spirits since Victorian times. Host is part of the British ghost movie tradition that joins the last pseudo-documentary ghost thriller Ghostwatch, which was broadcast only once on British television and freaked out the entire nation because some people thought it was real.
The subtext of living isolated and fearful in a new normal that could come crashing down at any moment and kill you is clear. This is a lockdown horror movie that captures the current mood without saying that's what it's about. It doesn't tell you. It makes you feel it through the prism of a supernatural horror story, an updating of the traditional ghost story, and slasher movie into a new configuration. The lurking terror of things falling apart and collapsing on your head in a heartbeat is the prevailing vibe of right now.
It can also be read as social commentary about millennials: a bunch of young 'uns who think they're above it all mess with something they think is harmless, and it ends up biting them on the arse, hard. It could be read as an analogy for all those young people now who think they're immune to COVID-19 and then living to regret it when they actually catch it. Horror has always been about catharsis, but Host also contains some nasty schadenfreude as well. Never has "don't hold a séance on zoom during the pandemic, no matter how bored you are" been so entertainingly expressed.
Host is currently streaming on Shudder.