Dir. Rob Savage; Haley Bishop, Emma Louise Webb, Jemma Moore
[4 out of 4 stars]
Host (2020) takes place entirely within a Zoom call between six friends and the woman that one of them has hired to conduct a seance during COVID-19 quarantine. That’s it. That is the movie. Therefore, you can imagine my initial resistance to watching a movie set entirely on Zoom when it initially premiered on Shudder this summer, as the entirety of my personal and professional life was happening on the same platform. But while life is still predominantly virtual, I now find myself in a situation where I have built up enough acceptance of my Zoom-ed reality to finally fire up what a number of publications have already called the best horror movie of the year. Now, writing this a few hours after tearing through Host’s brisk 57-minute runtime, I am feeling two emotions quite clearly. First, sheer disappointment in myself for taking this long to watch what is a masterclass in minimalist filmmaking. Second, a rising suspicion that I may never log onto a Zoom call without first securing an escape plan if a demon happens to crash the call.
We enter the Zoom call with Haley (Haley Bishop), who has arranged it. Slowly, each of her friends, all in their mid-20s or early 30s, enter the call; there is Jemma (Jemma Moore), who is skeptical of the whole seance deal, Emma (Emma Louise Webb) and Caroline (Caroline Ward), who both express trepidation about the night’s plan, Radina (Radina Drandova), who would prefer just to chat with her friends instead of fight with her newly live-in boyfriend, and Teddy (Edward Linard), who joins late and leaves quickly when he is pulled away by his girlfriend. Director and screenwriter Rob Savage, along with his co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, smartly give us about ten minutes of screen time to get used to these people and how they interact together. Haley is clearly concerned about how seriously her other friends will take the seance, so repeatedly tries to steer the conversation toward asking them to “be respectful.” Radina has to walk away and mute herself to ask her boyfriend to stop aggressively chopping vegetables, and while she’s away the others talk quietly about how bad an idea it was for them to move in together at the start of quarantine. They talk about Teddy before he arrives as the last on the call, and how they do not approve of his new girlfriend. In such a short window, we get a sense of each of these friends and how they function as a group.
Alongside his cast, Savage also introduces a number of Zoom-based effects and setting-based ticks that function as an assemblage of Chekhov’s guns. One is the video background that Caroline has recorded, a repeating clip of her walking into her room, brushing her hair, and then leaving again. Radina’s boyfriend is a wrinkle in the same way, as we see him early on, and then he disappears for most of the rest of the runtime. Emma adds one of her own when she starts playing with the facial affect feature on Zoom, goofing around with it as her friends laugh. I call them all Chekhov’s guns because Savage makes sure to highlight each at their own time so we notice them, taking note of their existence in a waterfall of set-up. We know they will play a role because Savage has featured them, we just do not know when they will ‘go off.’ It is a brilliant and economical use of screen time, to set up the visual rules of the movie while we come to know the people who exist within them. In less than fifteen minutes, the exposition is dealt with, and the dominoes are set for the Zoom setting to mess with the friends as well as viewers. Once the friends are joined by Seylan (Seylan Baxter), who leads the seance, we are off.
The remaining 40 odd minutes of runtime unfold as the seance progresses from unsettling to deadly. The first frights are low stakes. A green light on Radina’s screen looks like it may be a spirit, but turns out to be a reflection from the window. Jemma acts as if she’s experiencing a ghostly visitor, something she reveals she was faking, but not before a cabinet falls behind Seylan and her internet cuts out, leaving the friends alone. What follows is infinitely more terrifying than I imagined anything that took place on a Zoom screen could be. Instead of attempting to replicate the ‘normal’ rules of a horror movie that does not happen entirely on a computer screen, Savage leans into what the Zoom setting provides. The normally annoying but harmless video freezing and audio garbling that comes with video chatting become a centerpiece of destabilizing both the characters and viewers. Every time a sound or visual seems slightly abnormal, you cannot know if it’s a supernatural attack on one of the characters or just Zoom being difficult. This crafts a grating baseline of tension. I will refrain from spoiling the specifics of the scares because the joy of them is not knowing when they are coming, but I will say this; each of the Chekhov’s guns come back with a vengeance as the friends are targeted one by one.
For a movie that requires a cast to act almost exclusively through facial expressions, each woman holds their own, convincingly conveying a growing sense of dread. Ward is especially adept, shifting from goofy to tear-streaked as time goes on. In this way, the film has a distinct lineage to silent horror films. Those pieces relied on amplified facial expressions to make up for the lack of sound and dialogue. Host may have the added bonus of being a sound film, but working within the constraints of a Zoom screen the cast’s facial expressions carry the film. In another circumstance where we could see them fully all the time, and be in the space with them, their performances would no doubt seem over-the-top, but they are perfectly calibrated for this setting. Watching them, I felt immensely drawn in, as if I was a silent member of their intimate Zoom call. That may be a result of having spent months and months now staring at the same interface with my own close friends (never doing a seance, mind you), but even so that is the brilliance of setting this movie during COVID-19 quarantine. These are friends yearning for a sense of connection with one another, and it is more than a touch heartbreaking to watch that attempt at connection slowly morph from good-natured into true horror.
For all the formal and performative master strokes that Host pulls off, I am inclined to think that the most brilliant decision anyone involved made was to keep the runtime under an hour. The result of that truncated length is that everything in the film feels vital. Going back through it, I cannot find a frame or second that I would get rid of, and that is exceedingly rare these days (just listen to PFR Weekly where we joke about our ‘PFR cuts’ of movies). Host does not try to be an expansive meditation on the horror of COVID-19, or the holy grail of computer screen based filmmaking; it simply tells its story in the most concise and effective way possible, and as a result may end up being one of the most memorable pieces of filmmaking to come out of this pandemic. Savage and co. have made a movie that forces viewers to shift our conception of supernatural horror from back rooms and basements to the very place that we are all currently spending more time than ever: our computers. The creative team does so with style, ease, and more than a little flair. So be better than me, and do not put off watching Host any longer than you have to because it is exceptional.