Host. 2020. Directed by Rob Savage. Screenplay by Savage, Gemma Hurley, & Jed Shepherd. Starring Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, & Alan Emrys.
Not Rated / 57 minutes Horror / Mystery
★★★★ I am a lover of found footage. I know as good as anybody the subgenre has been overused. Found footage gives a lot of first-time filmmakers and indie directors an opportunity to try creating big scares for little money. Some have done far better than others: The Blair Witch Project‘s budget was $200-500K and it grossed near $250-million at the box office, by far the subgenre’s crowned jewel. Host belongs to a category all of its own because of the circumstances in which it was made— shot during a global pandemic in various locations due to quarantine with the actors themselves doing effects work alongside giving great performances. Rob Savage’s job as director had to be an entirely different experience than any other found footage film out there just by virtue of the unique production.
The story’s simple, yet effective. Haley (Haley Bishop) has arranged a virtual seance on Zoom for herself and her friends. Not all of them take it seriously, even after the seance starts. Despite the woman leading their seance warning to be respectful of the spirits, Jemma (Jemma Moore) fakes everybody out, pretending to feel a presence. And, you guessed it, another spirit doesn’t take kindly to it. What begins as a cutesy digital hangout turns into a nightmare.
During the filming of The Blair Witch Project, co-directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick would do things in the woods while shooting without telling their actors to elicit genuine fright. In similar style, certain things in Host were pre-recorded to accomplish the same. This gives the film a purity in its found footage aesthetic. The story also touches on human connection in the age of lockdown, and ideas of the urban Gothic with spirits among the digital world. Most importantly it plays heavily on 21st-century disrespect for spirituality in the form of one pissed off spirit using technology to haunt the subjects of its terror. This is great COVID-19-era horror. One of Host‘s charms is its depiction of digital connection in an age of lockdown. We see so much of actual current life reflected in the film, particularly before all the scares. One of the women has moved in with a boyfriend she only started seeing very recently and, naturally, they’re experiencing issues stuck together in quarantine. In one scene a couple of the women remark how you can’t cough since the pandemic or else people give you a weird look. Funnier than that they mention how nowadays you cough to cover a fart, not the other way around like it was before the virus. These moments are so genuine, like later when the women are all starting to get really freaked out and one of them sneezes funny, momentarily breaking the tension. All found footage should strive to be as real as possible because, no matter what the film’s subject, that’s what the subgenre relies on, a sense of realism. It doesn’t matter if the story involves demons, ghosts, or whatever else. If there’s no foundation of realism in a found footage film, there’s really no authenticity to it.
Because Zoom is the medium through which we experience the film, Savage uses modern urban living and noise as a tactic to psych out the audience. The knocks early on at Haley’s place, which turn out to be Jemma at the window, for a moment make us wonder: has the haunting already started? Later, the woman leading their seance has a knock come at her door— a food delivery— but it comes at a moment when the women are trying to listen for a sign from the spiritual world. These scenes encompassing the noise we experience every day living in a modern urban environment sets up misdirection useful for jump scares and creepy moments. Modernity goes on to play a big part in Host. Major elements of the film incorporate a 21st-century vision of the Gothic and ideas about how the digital and spiritual worlds collide.
“If I die I’m actually going to haunt you myself”
The Gothic changes over the course of history. What was Gothic even in the 1970s is not necessarily what’s Gothic in 2020. Host works as an interesting exploration of (sub)urban ghosts and the history of modern haunted houses. In this day and age with people moving from house to house or apartment to apartment frequently in cities, not everybody knows, or can know, the history of their property. Thus the women here are left unprotected in a number of ways, including the fact they likely can’t possibly know the secret histories of their respective houses. The scene where we quickly see the ghost of somebody hanging in an attic is maybe the best instance of this, not to mention one hell of a scare.
What interests me most personally about Host is the way it explores a connection between the spiritual and the digital. Polaroid, an older technology, is capable of capturing ghosts. The “false spirit” they’ve accidentally conjured— thanks, Jemma!— is capable of being recognised by newer technology, depicted below when its presence is detected by a Snapchat/Instagram filter. Though it doesn’t show up in a physical form like the apparition caught by the Polaroid camera. This fits with Seylan (Seylan Baxter), the seance leader, telling the group they’re “slightly less protected” via Zoom because of a lack of physical connection. In essence, the further we move away from the spiritual world into the digital, such as in the shift from Polaroid cameras to smartphone cameras, the less of a connection there is between those two worlds which ultimately leaves us vulnerable to sinister entities.
Host impressed me and evidently many horror fans felt the same. People who aren’t lovers of found footage, or those who’ve lost faith in the over-saturated subgenre, have even seemed to gravitate towards it. Savage does a great job directing a film that required a fair deal of effort out of his cast, apart from just acting, and one he couldn’t direct in the same ways as he’s usually used to working. Haley Bishop and Jemma Moore are particular standouts among the cast, they really pull an audience into their fear without needing to go over-the-top. The entire cast are solid and feel like real people instead of contrived characters playing at being real, a necessary component for any successful found footage film.
Not afraid to say Host legitimately frightened me a couple times. I jumped at the final scare, which brought me back to the mid-2000s when people would send a video explaining to turn your speakers up and look at the screen closely before an Exorcist-like image would pop up to induce near heart attacks. What’s even better than scary found footage is found footage with brains, and this one’s ripe with meaning. The film can be taken as an allegory for all the terrifying things we allow into our homes and our lives via the internet, from sexual predators to people seeking to steal your identity and more. Beneath all the scares and the Zoom gimmick are compelling modern themes that question our digital world and the ways it can leave us unprotected against older things predating technology. Host is a lean, mean digital Gothic chiller best watched with the lights on.