Shudder’s “Host” mines effective scares out of COVID-era communication

Host Shudder Host (Shudder)

In Shudder’s latest, Host, Rob Savage wrangles a tight, heart-stopping screen-based horror flick out of six actors, practical scares, and a Zoom call.

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In the world that coronavirus has created, Zoom can feel like heaven and hell. For many of us, it’s our window into the outside world — we can finally talk to the friends and loved ones we can no longer see for fear of exposing each other to a deadly virus. But it’s also stifling, an awkward sea of muted mics, interrupting cats and relatives, the unceasing gaze of your own face looking back at you. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching on into what is for many their fifth or sixth month, we’re finally seeing the kind of art that people are creating. If Rob Savage’s Host, the latest original from Shudder, is an indicator of the caliber of work we’re going to get, I welcome it.

Screen-based horror is nothing new; both of the Unfriended films have received quite the critical reappraisal, and Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is a riveting multi-media thriller set entirely against a MacBook screen. With Host, we’re privy to a Zoom-based séance gone horribly wrong: six friends — Haley Bishop, Radina Drandove, Edward “Teddy” Linard, Jemma Moore, Caroline Ward, and Emma Louise Webb, all playing characters with the same names — decide to while away quarantine by participating in a remote-conferencing ritual with a friend of Haley’s, a medium (Seylan Baxter). Seylan guides them through the rituals so they can contact their respective loved ones. But one of the girls takes this demonstrably less seriously than the others, and her goof-em-up ends up opening the door to a demonic presence that haunts them in their own homes.

Savage (Dawn of the Deaf) wrote and directed the whole thing through quarantine, guiding actors remotely through not just performance, but camera setups and stuntwork. The results are fascinating in their inventiveness, which makes them that much more effective. It’s a real case of outsider art borne of limitation — not just of pandemic rules of social distancing, but the technological limits of ghostly, effects-light scares and the very Zoom platform on which they recorded it.

Make no mistake, Host is an hour-long haunted house ride and little more. The characters, while capably and charmingly played, don’t get enough time to flesh out character arcs beyond the occasional unstated behind-the-screens tension. This is simply a group of relatably-bored Millenials hoping to pass the time with a silly game, and getting way more than they bargained for. It’s in Host‘s presentation (both as screen-based horror and a showcase for what you can do amid COVID-era obstructions) that its true appeal can be found.

The results are fascinating in their inventiveness, which makes them that much more effective.

Structurally, Savage turns his bugs into features, using the now-universal understanding of the Zoom platform to mine some inventive scares. Editor Brenna Rangott judiciously flits us between individual windows and Zoom’s gallery mode, at every turn inviting us to scan the negative space behind our characters for the next thing to go bump in the night. It’s a similar technique to Leigh Whannell’s Invisible Man, itself a ghost story of a type. It’s all about what lurks in the margins of the frame, and our terrified need to look for it, that drives Host‘s tension.

Our Zoom-addled world has led to what many are calling ‘Zoom fatigue’, that sense of mental exhaustion that comes with the kinds of constrained and hyperfocused interactions we go through in our new screen-centric life. Host plays on that to startling effect, forcing us to scan not just the frame, but the faces and gestures of six different people, to absorb all the information Savage is giving us. It puts us in a vulnerable state, making us all the more susceptible to the moments where Savage cranks up the terror.

Zoom’s other quirks get plenty of ominous real estate, too: the quick flash of a profile picture before someone signs on or off, the eerie tension of a muted participant, the feedback that comes from signing on to two devices close to each other. Even Zoom’s custom chroma-keyed backgrounds are used for one particularly satisfying ‘boo’. (Hell, even the short runtime — it’s only an hour long — is baked into the darkly comic gag of Zoom’s 40-minute cap on free calls with multiple people.)

While it traffics in the kind of spooky jump scares common to found-footage horror like this, it’s the constraints under which it was filmed, and Savage’s skill at pulling them off, that make Host so gripping to watch. More than any horror film I’ve seen in a long time, moments in Host left me genuinely wondering, like with a good magic trick, “How’d they do that?” Actors are pulled along chairs; legs dangle from the ceiling only to be pulled away from frame; some people even burst into flame on screen. Certainly, some VFX work is involved, but the ensemble on display had to play a bigger part than normal in staging elaborate practical stunts to visualize the mysterious demon’s campaign of terror on his virtual victims. It does more than lend the scares an air of terrifying immediacy — it honestly brings back some of the magic of old-school moviemaking.

But maybe the scariest thing about Shudder’s Host is how it manages to reflect our own sense of isolation and paranoia. For many, Zoom is a lifeline, a necessary evil to communicate with the outside world. But what happens when our homes aren’t safe either? What if, like James Stewart in Rear Window, you see someone suffering a terrible fate but can’t do anything to stop it? Through both form and narrative senses, Savage manages to touch on these concerns and delivers a stunningly effective horror film in its own right. That it takes place as a global virus surges through the world and we’re starved for new, quality genre fare, is just icing on the blood-soaked cake.

Host starts screaming on Shudder Thursday, July 30th.

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