The word ‘host’ can refer equally to anyone accommodating a houseguest, to the organiser of a group webchat, or to a person who has become possessed. All these meanings will come into play in Rob Savage’s Host, in which six friends, bored by the isolation of lockdown and eager for any kind of stimulation, agree to take part in an online séance run by the medium Seylan (Seylan Baxter). Much as the actors who play these six (Haley Bishop, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb and Edward Linard – the first three of whom were also in Savage’s 2016 short Dawn of the Deaf) and lend them their forenames also conjure between them a credibly cosy friendship, the characters too will conjure from the ether a mischievously malevolent spirit (played by Frankenstein’s Creature himself, James Swanton) which insidiously transforms the safe-seeming interiors of their homes into a hallucinatory, hellish hangout space.
All this can be traced back to Michael Constanza’s groundbreaking low-budget The Collingswood Story (2002), whose footage is confined to the webcam view of two students in a long-distance relationship and the sinister psychic whom they contact online. Made before Skype had become mainstream, and before Youtube had even launched, Costanza’s prescient piece saw the potential for using a computer screen as the ‘live medium’ for intradiegetic camerawork, breaking down the comfortable barrier between horror’s viewers and characters. Eventually others would pick up this technologically driven subspecies of ‘found footage’, leading to films like Zachary Donohue’s The Den (aka Hacked, 2013), Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows (2014), Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2014), Branden Kramer’s Ratter (2015), Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (2018), Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile (2018) and Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web (2018).
Co-written by Savage, Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd (with much improvisation from the cast), Host picks up the ‘webcam horror’ ball and rolls it further down the hallway, updating itself to the conference-calling capabilities of Zoom which, though available since 2013, has come into its own (and into all our homes) during this year’s Covid-19 crisis. So the familiarity in which Savage grounds his horror is the videotelephony technology which has formed a fundamental part of our social interactions over these last months – a gemütlich if glitchy platform which mediates our hopes and fears. Key to the effectiveness of Host is its immediacy: not just of the film’s explicit setting amid the conditions of the pandemic lockdown in which it was also remotely filmed; but also of its apparent unfolding in real time (although in multiple spaces). That everything transpires ‘live’ on a computer screen within the narrative, even as we watch the film on our own computer screens (Host has been released exclusively on Shudder‘s website), forces a close alignment between characters and viewers. We are welcomed in hospitably as a muted part of the convivial conversation, before becoming aware that we need not be the only ones lurking in the online shadows, and that we too might inadvertently be playing host to something unwelcome, be it a malicious hacker or a virus (whether computer or Corona) – or even an interdimensional demon.
Savage expertly handles the escalation of these uncanny home invasions, letting viewers share the characters’ growing sense of unease, disorientation and blind panic, while also modulating our reactions to what is occurring on-screen by constantly showing us the alarmed, helpless faces of the other characters (themselves viewers) whenever any of their number is seen suffering something horrific and irrational. The ‘boo’ moments here – the initial fakeouts, the sudden loud noises, the creepy corridors, closets and lofts, the moving furniture, the bodies dragged into the darkness or suspended in the air – will be recognisable from countless other horror titles, but what refreshes them here (apart from their accomplished execution) is the Zoom interface itself, which is entirely of the moment, making the medium very much a part of the message. If that message is that we should be very careful dabbling online in the dark arts, it may just come too late for anyone who is already streaming Savage’s own dark art on their digital device.
This lockdown movie certainly comes with topical relevance in the here and now, at a time when we all feel housebound, trapped and prey to forces (both external and internal) beyond our control – but compellingly naturalistic performances (in what will turn out to be unnaturalistic circumstances) and some very well-constructed scares seem likely to secure this film’s future as well. For Host, like what we witness in one character’s exploratory trip to her attic, has legs…
© Anton Bitel