A movie shot only on Zoom, starring actors trapped in their houses
Horror films always surge in popularity when a country is going through turmoil. It’s certainly the genre of the moment for this pandemic. The highest grossing film of July 2020 was Relic, a horror film released only to drive-in theaters and VOD. And once you take out all the nostalgic re-releases of The Empire Strikes Back, Jurassic Park and the like, the domestic Top 10 for this month is mostly horror with a side of Palm Springs.
HOST ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Rob Savage
Written by: Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd
Starring: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Edward Linard, Seylan Baxter
Running time: 56 min
So it was only a matter of time before someone made a film about the coronavirus. British director Rob Savage’s new horror film Host debuted on Shudder Thursday. Host’s main hook is that it’s not just about the current uncertain moment of lockdown in which we’re all finding ourselves. Savage also shot it entirely using Zoom, the video software du jour. None of the actors were ever in the same room together, and Savage directed everyone remotely.
Host is a quick and dirty frightfest that will inevitably conjure up comparisons to the Paranormal Activity and Unfriended franchises. But it benefits from a short running time, sharp commentary and surprisingly great special effects for something that Savage filmed entirely through webcams.
The simple premise goes like this. Haley, Jemma, Emma, Radina, Caroline and Teddy (all of whom share names with the actors who play them: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Edward Linard) get together one night in lockdown and hire a medium (Seylan Baxter) to hold a Zoom séance. Why? Who knows. Just roll with it.
The only two people taking the whole thing seriously are Seylan and Haley; everyone else is skeptical. When Jemma jokes about making contact with a fake spirit, she accidentally summons an evil spirit that haunts everyone on the Zoom call.
What follows is an effective, taut thriller that relies on the audience’s familiarity with (and growing disdain for) Zoom calls to create scares.
Host, at only 56 minutes including credits, functions as both a film and a Zoom call. We spend the first 10 or 15 minutes watching the characters go through the motions we’ve all done on these calls in the last few months: Lobby, greetings, small talk about staying inside and wearing masks, “How are you doing with everything?, muting microphones, internet connection troubles, screen-sharing, and finally, a meeting leader commenting about the novelty of meeting over Zoom. It would feel pedantic if it weren’t something we are all still living through.
The audience watches as each Zoom participant experiences their own version of the evil spirit coming to attack them. It’s here where the Zoom gimmick works in the film’s favor. Devoid of an instrumental score, it’s just us, the screen and the heightened sound effects. Watch it with the volume up and the lights down.
We see the “free meeting time” countdown timer in the top left-hand corner of the screen; our eyes constantly search the character’s Zoom backgrounds for something that may or may not be there; we question if every rumbling in the background is a spirit or just poor internet connectivity. And when the shit hits the fan, Savage and his effects team show what they can do with one screen and some indie enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter that the characters are barely sketched out or the plot is flimsy. Half of the fun of watching Host lies in wondering how the hell they pulled it off at all. I expect Host to be merely the first in a new wave of similarly-produced films; it looks like a similar Zoom-themed film is currently in post-production.
But Host’s underlying commentary sets it apart from other films that utilize the one-screen gimmick. The catalyst for the whole film comes when a character fails to take a threat seriously and puts her friends in danger as a result. That thought is scarier than any evil spirit in these times.
Paranormal Activity and Unfriended were snapshots of the time they were released, sure, but Host is a movie that could only belong to this particular moment in 2020. It wouldn’t work as a typical theatrical release. It wouldn’t even exist if theatrical distribution were still an option.