REVIEW – ‘Host’ is short, sweet, and absolutely terrifying

Back in 1999, The Blair Witch Project gave new life to the “found footage” genre of horror filmmaking and created a voyeuristic experience that was equal parts captivating and horrifying. In recent years, the genre has evolved into the “computer screen film,” where the entire visual narrative is constructed within the digital devices of the film’s characters. At a time when we are so reliant on video technology to remain connected with friends and family, it hardly surprising a horror film is here to make us terrified of something many of us use every single day.

Taking heavy inspiration from films like the underrated Unfriended, the masterful Searching, and the underseen The Den, Host takes the seemingly innocuous activity of a Zoom group chat and devilishly twists it into one of the scariest films of the year. A film born of social isolation restrictions, its ingenious construction perfectly encapsulates 2020 and delivers a thrilling, goosebump-inducing rollercoaster that’s short, sweet, and absolutely terrifying.

In what soon becomes the Zoom meeting from absolute hell, Haley (Haley Bishop) invites her close friends Jemma (Jemma Moore), Emma (Emma Louise Webb), Radina (Radina Drandova), Caroline (Caroline Ward), and Teddy (Edward Linard) to join her for a spooky evening of playful fun via an online séance, conducted with the help of clairvoyant medium Seylan (Seylan Baxter).

With plans to contact a deceased loved one from beyond the grave, some in the group are taking it deadly serious (namely Haley), while others find the whole thing rather absurd. But when one member of the gang makes the wrong kind of joke during the process, the friends unwittingly invite a demonic spirit into their digital conversation with frightful consequences for all involved.

Laying his action entirely within the limited confines of the Zoom conversation, director and co-writer Rob Savage taps into the zeitgeist of COVID-19 life with a film that’s so impressively pertinent by virtue of the social isolation we’re all experiencing right now. At its heart, Host is not inherently a “coronavirus film,” but the references to masks, coughing, and elbow bumps will come to define the environment this film was created within, in years to come.

Working with a low budget and government-mandated social restrictions, Savage has managed to take the current state of the world and create a piece of cinema that simply wouldn’t have made sense in any other time period. Even with a tight running time of 56 minutes (yes, you read that correctly), Savage wisely takes his time to establish his well-drawn characters and set the scene before the horrors are truly unleashed.

We know something is not quite right with séance from the very beginning (it is a horror movie, after all) and it’s hard not to find yourself scouring each chat window for the slightest movement or sinister sign of something supernatural. Much in the same vein as a film like Paranormal Activity, Savage builds heart-pounding tension with each passing minute, as flickering candles and unexplained noises are just the beginning of what lies in store for these unfortunate young women.

Featuring a cast of relative unknowns, Host offers an ensemble of charming characters you genuinely care for, which is rather miraculous, due to the short running time. Given the characters all share the actors’ names, it’s unclear if each is merely playing a fictionalised version of themselves, but it certainly stamps the film with a level of realism to elicit hearty empathy from an audience. The solid chemistry between the cast is deeply authentic, particularly as each character is harrowingly forced to watch their fellow friends being tormented by an unseen force.

While there is an overreliance on jump scares, they’re all executed with such pinpoint precision to truly strike instant terror into your heart. Sure, most of these moments lack true originality, but many are constructed via some fascinating new techniques, particularly the use of Zoom’s in-camera effects, which you’ll never look at quite the same again. Savage is clearly a filmmaker who understands the limitations of such a narrative and wisely wraps up this tight little thrill-ride long before its worn out its welcome.

A terrifying nightmare that genuinely had me cowering in my seat, Host is one of the most deliciously enjoyable experiences of the year. At a time where we’re all stuck in bleak isolation, there is nothing better than taking a dive into something far more horrifying than the reality of 2020. A fresh and imaginative reimagining of the found-footage genre, Host is a remarkable achievement in a moment of history we’d rather forget.

By setting and crafting his film in the midst of a pandemic, Host is a testament to what can be achieved even in the direst of circumstances. It’s truly impressive Savage was able to create something so daring in the midst of such turmoil and restrictions. The hype has been building for this film since it debuted in late July and it’s rare to find a film that manages to shatter all expectations, particularly in the horror genre. But Host is the real deal and stands as a marquee moment for horror streaming platform Shudder.

Distributor: Shudder
Cast: Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Alan Emrys, Seylan Baxter, Edward Linard
Director: Rob Savage
Producers: Douglas Cox, Emily Gotto, Samuel Zimmerman
Screenplay: Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd
Costume Design: Alexi Kotkowska
Editing: Brenna Rangott
Running Time: 56 minutes
Release Date: 7th August 2020 (Australia)