As horror movies express the terrifying social realities of their day, it makes perfect sense for one to exist as an end-to-end Zoom chat necessitated by and existing within the reality of COVID-19. Filmed entirely through inventive webcam trickery, director Rob Savage never set foot in the same room as his actors. They each produce their own practical effects. While it shows, it is worth highlighting the move toward a new means of making movies. Like 2018’s Searching before it, Host grapples with modernity, shaping a genre picture around new limitations. Filmmaking is so broadly accessible and open-ended, the director must now impart their own limitations, their own stipulation on the design so that they might produce some kind of pioneering indie spirit. When a group of friends enlist a spiritual expert to perform a technological seance, they get more than they had bargained for.
Some healthy skepticism about the format is totally fair and ultimately warranted. It shows that the director is not with his actors. Each ends up their own individual director of their frame and the film breaks into several tones, several different modes of making a movie, occurring at the same time. Host loses control of its subjects more than a few times — if you’ve been on a particularly lively Zoom call, you already know how hard it is to even communicate efficiently among a large group — directing a coherent and internally consistent movie that way, with an ensemble cast, seems to be above anyone’s call. There are many moments where there is a tech breakdown, malfunctions whether intended or not prescribed, and these dramatically impact the movie, both causing general fatigue and lending it crunchy techno-horror credentials.
The film isn’t entirely fixed to each participant’s desk. They carry about their cameras and get to engage in some minimal but sufficiently haunted sequences. Host also leverages its technology in some truly refreshing ways that do pay off. During one of its loudest and most committed horror sequences, there’s a great gag where the Zoom window comes up, notifying its users that their 40-minute free trial is up. When the situation calms down, one user enables animated features and is promptly haunted. Hilariously, a big animated tongue wags out of her mouth as she shivers and gasps in terror.
Horror is the perfect experimenting ground, where rough new ideas can benefit the whole of production. Where Unfriended (2014) set up the pins and Cam (2018) brilliantly knocked them right down, Host urges toward an intrinsic quality about webcam horror; a desperate, trying effort to capitalize on the way we interface with tech right now. It breezily comes and goes at a short 56 minutes. That is not quite enough to establish the characters properly, to allow each of them individuality, and have a more formal arc for any of them. It is, however, just enough time to try on a chilly and innovative idea that just about maxes out its intrigue in the space allowed.
There is something gnawing at the Host, weird energy, an admission that is has been made in the time of COVID. It’s explicit in the film and it becomes such a literal idea of quarantine that it may not provide any joy for those longing for anything outside their norm. It captures what we do every day and while it has a few good chills, our lived reality feels so much scarier. The reality of that acknowledgment feels like a tacit admission that there is something more interesting to explore. That a film could really look into the way we connect, beyond visual gags, and probe into the psychology of quarantine. It also begs the question, are these the movies we want to see made? A fun bite-sized treat for lockdown, appreciate it briefly for its gimmicks and leave the rest.