Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon.
If you paid even a modicum of attention to what movie theaters were showing during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, alongside a Raiders of the Lost Ark here, a Jaws there, Rob Savage’s Host was likely one of the movies you saw listed that summer. Released jointly in theaters and on the streaming service Shudder, Host marked the arrival of both a new, distinctively clever director in the horror space as well as pandemic-era filmmaking, which, whether we liked it or not, was bound to become a plot-point in movies down the road.
The surprise of Host was not only marked by how quickly it was made and released — a little over fourth months after most Americans saw the effects of COVID-19 put the country/world in a stranglehold — but how effective it is as a medium-length chiller. It would’ve been so very easy for writers Rob Savage, Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd to pad this 56-minute film out to 85-95 minutes with extraneous banter and nonsensical nothingness. Instead, the trio keep things short and sweet with a work of screenlife horror that amounts to great entertainment despite its fixation with jump-scares.
Similar to Searching, Host takes place entirely on a computer screen, specifically a Zoom meeting. The concept is simple: six friends log on to Zoom for a virtual séance, led by flakey spiritual named Seylan (Seylan Baxter). Haley (Haley Bishop) has gone thru the trouble of organizing this gathering, and has to try and be the group-mom to get everyone else to take it seriously. Shortly after the séance begins, the mischievous Jemma (Jemma Moore) plays a prank on Seylan and the group that backfires almost instantly, with the spirit they summon acting erratic and unpredictable.
From there, it’s the usual brigade of household items inexplicably moving, doors slamming, and other strange occurrences manifesting in each of the characters’ homes.
Savage and company conceived this project on an entirely remote basis, meaning the actors never came in contact with one another during familiar, and the co-writer/director never even visited the respective actresses’ sets. Equipment and instructions were sent via mail, and inexpensive tech (IE: fishing wire) was employed in order to give objects the appearance as if they were moving on their own. Similar to the improvisational nature of the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm, the fates of their co-stars’ characters were withheld from the performers in order to encourage authentic responses.
The latter decision can be felt in the authentic performances the actresses deliver, particular in the final 20 minutes of Host, when things really begin to get haywire. The way the writers utilize elements of Zoom — video backgrounds, facial recognition software — as horror devices is ingenuously effective in inspiring dread. Not to mention, there’s something wickedly funny about two women trying to combat a demon yet still opting to give one another a socially distanced elbow-bump in the process.
Those are just some of the curve-balls Host throws you in what amounts to a compelling hour-long diversion.
NOTE: Host is streaming exclusively on Shudder.
Starring: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Edward Linard, Seylan Baxter, Jinny Lofthouse, Alan Emrys, Patrick Ward, and James Swanton. Directed by: Rob Savage.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!