A perfectly paced, legitimately scary exercise in tension and creative, low budget filmmaking, Shudder’s “Host” does just about everything right.
There are a few found-footage horror films that strike the cultural zeitgeist at the perfect moment. The Blair Witch Project (1999) happened before technology erupted, Paranormal Activity (2007) emerged at the height of reality television, Searching (2018), while not a horror film, reminded us of the digital history that we leave behind in search engines and email and text chains.
These films are successful because they are well crafted stories. But they are also time capsules, historical artifacts that demand attention from a fast moving, never halting technological world. When they are done well, they raise a mirror to show us our own terrifying reflection.
Rob Savage’s Host (2020) is one of these films.
Like many found-footage movies, Host navigates a simple plot. Isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of friends gather through Zoom to perform a digital séance. When connections are severed, the group gets far more than a spiritual connection with the dead.
There have already been critics and reviewers who have labeled Host as the “Zoom horror film.”
This type of reductive categorization was bound to happen. It’s the fateful flaw of found-footage and it’s allowed people to write off the sub-genre as another worthless entry into the ever-growing horror catalogue.
But Host isn’t the next mindless iteration of Paranormal Activity. It’s not built to be a medium for jump scares and popcorn-crunching plot. Savage is disciplined and tactical in how he is using found-footage as a storytelling tool. Each shot is precise and imperative to the story. Even the more innocuous opening few minutes are strategically used to invite uncertainty and dread.
Savage uses empty space well. Most of the characters have hallways or doors behind them. This negative space is consistently chilling, even when there is no real action happening.
The Zoom interface has the viewer shifting from framed character to framed character hoping that they haven’t missed something moving in the background. Few horror films invite this type of active engagement from the audience.
It’s pure tension from start to finish.
Part of the draw of found footage films are the characters.
Blair Witch was so successful because of their guerrilla marketing campaign, which created fake missing persons posters for the actors. Blair Witch benefitted from people without a huge filmography. Their anonymity made them authentic.
Similarly, Host’s characters feel real. For those that have been stuck in endless Zoom meetings at work and in the COVID-19 version of social gatherings, the acting is genuine. We’re not glamorous on Zoom. We’re pajamaed and tired of being cooped up and willing to do anything to break the monotony. Host knows what we’re experiencing and it exploits it perfectly.
Perhaps the biggest example of Savage’s creative intelligence is the film’s runtime.
Host is a tight 60 minutes. It’s the length of a Zoom meeting, and it is enough to get to know the characters, have a stake in the story, and then run through the film’s most tense moments.
Nothing is left behind and nothing feels drawn out for the sake of runtime. Host should be held up as an example of how to make quick, cheap, effective horror that does the job and doesn’t apologize.
Yes. There are weaknesses to the movie. One of the biggest struggles of found footage is camera work. We have multiple characters turning their laptop cameras away from them and traveling through a space for the sole purpose of eliciting jump scares. Now that we’ve been living in the Zoom reality for so long, we know that this isn’t natural. With Host it does feel like a weakness, but it is also one of the conceits of found-footage. Sometimes, the camera work is awkward.
Will Host hold up as a time capsule? Maybe. People may want to forget COVID more than they want to remember it.
However, Host must be remembered.
It is an example of fearless creativity, innovation, and perseverance. It’s a testament that the horror genre can bend to meet any circumstance. No other type of film has the flexibility to meet these challenges.
Most importantly, it’s a signal to creators.
Host was made by people who weren’t willing to sit on the sidelines. They made something that not only speaks to the current cultural moment, but also manages to scare the hell out of everyone while doing it.