Some of the most creative feats in horror filmmaking were born out of constraints. The malfunctioning of the mechanical shark during the production of Jaws led director Steven Spielberg to take an eerily effective less-is-more approach. A $2 Captain Kirk mask from a costume shop on Hollywood Boulevard became the iconic face of bogeyman Michael Myers in the original Halloween. The lo-fi style of The Blair Witch Project added credibility to the idea that the film was a haunted artifact of found footage.
Co-writer / director Rob Savage made Host during the height of the COVID-19 quarantine. The film was shot via Zoom, and Savage directed the ensemble of actors remotely — guiding them on how to set up their cameras, adjust lighting and pull off smoke-and-mirror tricks. These DIY stunts are quite impressive considering the film deals with supernatural forces. Chairs fly, people levitate, a possessed body bashes its head against a desk.
The film revolves around a group of friends during one of their weekly Zoom hangout sessions. To spice things up a bit, Haley (Haley Bishop) invites a medium (Seylan Baxter) to help them conduct a séance.
Savage, along with co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, effectively uses this situation to bring out the characters’ desperation for a connection beyond their computers. The film taps into the claustrophobia we’re feeling at home these days, as many of us are working remotely, avoiding the outside world and spending time with family, friends and co-workers largely in cyberspace.
When the séance gets off to a slow start, one of the friends, Jemma (Jemma Moore), goes to dangerous lengths to feel something other than the dull dread of quarantine. She pretends to summon someone. But shortly after she cops to the prank, a demonic spirit begins to wreak havoc in everyone’s homes. (Coincidentally, the genesis of Host came from a similar prank Savage pulled on his own friends — many of whom are in the film — during a Zoom call.)
Jemma initially defends her playful actions by yelling, “Nothing was happening!” Here, you can’t help but reflect on the dangerous consequences stemming from others’ boredom during this time. Think of the college COVID parties or the latest gender reveal party to spark a wildfire.
Host isn’t the first desktop horror film. Unfriended launched this subgenre back in 2014 and even had a sequel in 2018. Although Unfriended digs deeper into the all-too-real dangers of social media, Host benefits from arriving during a time in which social media is becoming our prison. I watched the film on my laptop shortly after an end-of-day Zoom call for work. It was as if my day turned into a nightmare. It seemed as though I couldn’t escape this conference call platform.
Sure, we can go places while wearing masks. But if the virus doesn’t fade away, will we go back to hibernating in our homes and feeling haunted by the past? Like the best horror films, Host captures contemporary fears, but it’s also one hell of a haunted hayride — well, a socially distanced and virtual hayride.
The 29th Annual Heartland Festival will be held October 8-18, 2020, with both virtual and drive-in screening options. Check out the official website for screening times and ticket information.