Film Review: Host

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★★★★☆

Following its debut on Shudder earlier this year, Rob Savage’s sensational tech-horror hit gets a much-deserved wide release. Conceived, written, shot and released all in the early months of the Covid crisis and taking place entirely on a Zoom call, Host is about as contemporary – and chilling – as it gets.

In the midst of lockdown, five friends set up a Zoom call to host an online seance, led by medium Seylan (Seylan Baxter). But when Jemma (Jemma Moore), concocts a story about the spirit of a dead friend, she unwittingly invites in a demonic presence able to move between the homes of each participant on the call.

Host’s basic conceit is hardly original – Aneesh Chaganty’s 2018 Searching did wonders for the thriller genre with a similar idea, and as far back as 2014, Levan Gabriadze was plumbing the depths of desktop horror to comparable highs with Unfriended. What Host has over its forebears is of course its capture of the zeitgeist, right down to its use of Zoom video calling – a vertiginously uncanny replication of Zoom’s overnight transformation from obscure conferencing platform to fundamental medium of social interaction.

This is to discuss Host in the abstract – as some artefact, a cultural response to the pandemic to which future film historians can point as a key text in contemporary understandings of the social moment. It’s just as well, then, that it’s an absolute corker of a picture, too: a lean, smart and efficient animal of a horror picture. At just 56 minutes, there’s not an ounce of fat on this beast.

It’s a popular but lazy truism, easily refuted, that found-footage is the lowest form of horror. This latest desktop formulation of the subgenre is further proof of found-footage’s potential for originality. Host’s peculiar strengths lie not only in the astonishing tightness of its writing and banal believability of its performances, but also in its imaginative use of space and in the conflation between the virtual and physical realms.

It’s implied that the evil spirit can only affect the space captured within the frame of the webcam – a detail that none of the characters seem to pick up on in their terror. Meanwhile, a sequence, set up early with one character’s artificial background has a brilliant, disorienting payoff – a banal detail of contemporary video conferencing twisted into the realm of the uncanny.

Host isn’t perfect. Invariably there are times where it falls into the old trap of contriving to make its characters keep hold of their cameras in situations when no rational person would possibly do so. Still, among all Host’s invention, its masterful pacing and surprisingly empathetic characters, it’s easy to forgive a few clichés of the genre.

Christopher Machell