Host (2020)

“It’ll be fine…”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by Rob Savage
Starring Haley Bishop, Jemma More, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Teddy Linard and Seylan Baxter

This is the film the lockdown needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought not only severe anxiety, but a complete change in how we work and how we interact with our friends, family and colleagues. This stress which has stretched over many months all over the world has been reinforced by the uncertainty of the future and also the inability to actually see the enemy. This invisible virus is terrorising the world, though on the outside the world looks exactly the same. The only evidence that something is going on is that our cities are empty and the people we do see are wearing face masks. Rob Savage takes this fear and makes it tangible, targeting it at something that we understand – an angry demonic spirit.

Host (2020) is the found footage film of the pandemic. Following The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007), it wonders how far it can push this new technology that the pandemic has forced us to make a new staple in our lives, the group Zoom call. Host follows a group of friends as they attempt a new Zoom lockdown activity – a séance.

The film highlights the new issues the pandemic and worldwide lockdowns have brought us; the pressure on relationships, the worry for our elderly loved ones, the frustrations of Zoom etiquette and technology issues, and the jealously of those that are living their best lives in lockdown (or at least thats how Instagram makes it look).

Lockdown has brought new pressure on our relationships as we live with our families and housemates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This pressure is highlighted through Radina (Radina Drandova), with other characters commenting that she and her partner should not have moved in together for lockdown. She argues with her partner in the background of the call as he is chopping vegetables in the kitchen while she is trying to talk to her friends. He storms out of the room, and she comments;

“Whenever we fight he just goes to the bedroom and now I have all this space!”

The reality of just wanting a room to ourselves, a little privacy, time away from the constant anxiety knowing you cannot speak freely and openly anymore as everyone you live with is always there and could hear you is a constant concern in the pandemic era.

The fear for our loved ones, who may be elderly or have other medical conditions, is expressed through Caroline (Caroline Ward). She is living with her father who is refusing to stay inside. The younger generation, filled with anxiety over the health of our loved ones, find ourselves treating them like children and trying to keep them safe;

“He’s been so naughty though. He just keeps going out and then I have to like chase him down the street. I’m like “Dad stop it!””

The jealousy over our friends, family and colleagues that appear to be living their best lives in lockdown has also been putting untoward pressure on ourselves and our relationships. Teddy (Teddy Linard), a friend who is in lockdown with his girlfriend’s parents, has been posting about the mansion he is living in on Instagram. The absolute daggers the other members of the séance give him when his girlfriend interrupts and takes him away from the Zoom call are a perfect representation of every frustration we feel towards other Zoom callers.

The film also perfectly recapitulates the video calls we now make several times a day, both personal and professional. The use of stickers to cover webcams, fixing how you look while you wait for call to start, over exaggerated noises of someone picking up their device or trying to do a call in the wind. Jemma (Jemma More) trying to video call from both her computer and phone, with the sound infinity reverberating through the call, while Haley (Haley Bishop) exasperatedly says;

“I think you need to turn off the phone audio.”

Is the scenario we deal with everyday when someone refuses to mute their microphone. The awkward silences that fall as no one has anything really that interesting to say to each other as life has begun to feel like ‘Groundhog day’, fill the gaps as they wait for other members of the call to log on.

The pressures and anxieties of lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic and the frustrations with video calling are just the setting. It is the creative and very life-like way that Savage uses Zoom which really make this film.

The use of the Zoom platform is absolutely masterful. The screens shrinking and expanding, are used to focus us on certain events, but also to distract us. When we are faced with 7 different screens to look at, we find ourselves hunting for the hidden monsters in the background of the footage, only to be looking at the wrong screen when something happens, and we are left unsure of what we saw. The pixelation and the strange camera angles that occur frequently in Zoom calls allows for things to be hidden in the grain of the footage or just outside our view. It forces us to lean in and really concentrate on the film, right where Savage wants us to be.

Savage also takes advantage of Zoom backgrounds. These backgrounds have been utilised especially by students, as they can film themselves studying and play that on the zoom call rather than actually having to study in front of a camera. This allows for another layer in which the monsters can hide. We have come accustomed to these backgrounds, we knows just how close to our camera we have to sit to register as a person on Zoom, and therefore sit in front of our background. As we watch Caroline’s background play, blocking the real room from us, we can feel the spirit right there, just beyond the programs comprehension.

The countdown to the end of the free Zoom call is the icing on the cake. We know what is coming, but that just puts us right on that edge, trying to find the source of our fear in the dark, the pixels and the flash of a polaroid camera.

Unfortunately, the CGI leaves a little to be desired, and I find myself wishing they left out the images of the actual demonic spirit. The practical effects however, are believably fantastic, especially given that everything had to be done in pandemic lockdown conditions.

The highlight of Host, and the reason that this film works, is just how authentic it feels. The lines ring true, the characters sit before us with imperfect faces, they ugly cry and wear bunny slippers. We see ourselves and our friends in them, so their fears become our fears and the film becomes a much needed outlet for our our immense COVID-19 anxiety.

I highly recommend it for your Friday night film night.

P.S. I hope Host serves as an example of what not to do during lockdown! Please do not provoke the spirits of the underworld, and please, please, wear your face mask over your mouth and nose!

Host is avaliable on Shudder worldwide.

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