In an age when filming a movie is nigh-in impossible to do safely, when we touch elbows to greet one another, when the real horror seems to be the things going on outside, it can be really tough to create a horror film that actually scares you.
In my opinion, that’s an accomplishment that can be awarded to “Host”, a Shudder original directed by Robert Savage. The film’s premise is set in our current world, showing six friends conducting a séance via Zoom with the help of a practicing medium. I’ll be honest, the premise sounded fairly ridiculous to me at first. After all, how do you make a Zoom call scary?
Somehow, to my surprise, Savage accomplished it. Peppering in references to the pandemic at every turn—our protagonists wearing a mask before heading outside, greeting one another with elbow touches, some of the girls lamenting the lack of a social life, and of course the integral Zoom call—the director creates a horror movie that definitely made me shut my eyes from fear once or twice.
Let me put it this way: it takes a lot for a horror movie to really scare the shit out of me. Like, really. I’m not some badass, I’ve just watched a lot of horror movies. But this one—this one really got me.
Let’s get into the nitty gritty.
Be warned, there are spoilers ahead (also, trigger warning for suicide mentions).
Let’s get a quick synopsis out of the way first:
The movie begins with five friends consulting a professional medium to conduct a séance over Zoom. All seems well, there are even some hijinks, until one of the bunch decides to lie to the medium about a friend she had in school named ‘Jack’. She says that Jack hanged himself and nobody ever knew why.
Our psychic is booted from the call with technical difficulties, and it is then revealed that ‘Jack’ was never real. The séance supposedly ends, but then strange things start to happen.
Eventually, we learn from the psychic (over the phone) that a mask of ‘Jack’ had been created for any demonic entity to populate. Then, almost as quickly as the call ends, the group starts experiencing horrors beyond our worst imagining.
One by one our party is picked off in horrific fashion, until we’re finally left with two who meet up in real life. Trapped in one of their apartments, they walk to confront ‘Jack’ down a dark hallway, with the Zoom countdown ticking down to the end of the call in the top right corner. With two seconds left in the film, ‘Jack’ attacks the two, and his horrifying face is burned into our retinas. The call cuts out, and we are left with no closure at all; just Zoom’s desktop interface and a deep, ringing silence offering absolutely no comfort.
What ‘Host’ Did Right
I’ve seen my fair share of horror movies, and while I am by no means a professional critic, I know what makes me want to leave my lights on while I fruitlessly attempt to sleep.
In my opinion, there are a few different kinds of fear, and not all are present in horror flicks:
- Immediate fear. This is the kind that triggers your fight or flight response. It exists only when the movie is playing and disappears once the final jump scare has wrought itself across your screen.
- Lingering fear. This one is the fear that makes you leave your lights on. It’s the irrational fear of the monster crawling out of the TV, the hand at the end of the bed, the eyes staring at you from the corner of the room. A good horror movie will inspire you to fear your surroundings, picturing the monster behind every curtain or in every corner of the ceiling.
- Psychological fear. Finally, we reach the fear that follows you into your dreams, into the next day, perhaps even roots itself in your psyche forever. Whether it be the premise, the monster, or someone’s death, something in the film has stuck with you in such a tangible way that not even the cutest puppy video will uproot it. For me, that’s anything to do with clowns. Screw that.
‘Host’ does the first two kinds of fear substantial justice. While we’re treated to a very healthy smattering of jump scares and twists, the concept behind the film (as well as its execution) tips it over the edge, forcing images of twisted faces into your periphery as you walk through the dark at night.
Another thing this movie does very well is immersion. Savage’s goal was to make every viewer feel like they were on that Zoom call with everyone else, and that “Jack” was coming to get them next. It creates that lingering fear I was talking about, the kind that results from you feeling like you had some personal stakes in the film’s outcome.
There are many things Savage did to make the audience feel completely immersed, but here are my favourites:
- The movie is only 56 minutes long (the length of a real Zoom call).
- Savage includes the Zoom countdown. This is dramatic irony done so, so right. In the top right-hand corner of the screen, as the movie’s final seconds count down, we see a Zoom clock counting down to the end of the call. We see no resolution on screen, two of our protagonists are still alive, and they’re approaching the monster with a camera at the ready. In other words, we’re watching a countdown to their deaths, and that knowledge does a lot to heighten the tension.
- Savage utilises Zoom’s mechanics. While many directors may simply have leaned on the premise of the pandemic to justify using Zoom and just left it at that, Savage really thought about how he could translate horror to this new medium. He treated it like a modern found footage film, using filters, countdowns, mutes, and looping backgrounds to scare the shit out of us in real time.
‘Host’ director Robert Savage has a real knack for putting people on the edge of their seat.
Once we step into the horror part of the film, Savage wastes no time in giving us some pretty good expository scares. A panning shot around a dark attic with feet hanging in frame, a long look down a dark hallway (is that a figure? or just our eyes playing tricks?), an exploding wine glass, and one of our party being dragged across the floor by an unseen presence. Then, we get some communication from the spirit ‘Jack’ alongside exposition from our séance guide.
Most importantly? About a third of the way through the movie, the tension is very artfully broken with a moment of artificial relief. Our protagonists think they have cut the séance circle, they are aware of the potential danger, and we’re all starting to put together the pieces. We all know we’re only part of the way through the movie, but our party simply thinks that they have ended the séance and the danger is gone. Everything is relaxed and calm.
Until it really, really isn’t.
Throughout the entire moment of relief, I could not relax. Not even a little bit. Nothing was happening, everyone was chilling out, but with every sweep of a webcam I expected to see something awful, and that’s what really set me going, because the building tension had nowhere to go.
Until, of course, one of our six was thrown at her camera, signalling the true beginning of the terror-filled call.
Things Going Bump
Finally, this movie does one thing very well: silence. You’ll notice a distinct lack of music in the film, and only an occasional emphasis of the diegetic sound to pump up a scare.
There are few horror movies that can really utilise silence well. While I will say that many use music to its full effect, crafting a terrifying presence as if the sound is its own character in the film, I often find silence to be the most unsettling thing.
It draws you into that same feeling you have in the middle of the night after you’ve just heard a noise, a bang, even a distant scream. The realisation, as you play different scenarios over and over in your mind, that you are completely alone (even if there is someone sleeping right next to you).
So, do I recommend watching ‘Host’? Yes, I do. In fact, I recommend watching it on your laptop in the dark, just to immerse yourself that much more in the film’s premise.
As far as horror in the age of pandemics, I think this movie proves it can be done well. By banking on humanity’s collective experience, our emphasis on social distancing, and changes in how we socialise with one another, Savage created something both relevant and terrifying that promises to follow you down every dark hallway for a good long while.
Just don’t light a candle while you’re watching. Who knows what you might invoke?
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