This is a film that really shouldn’t work. The “screenlife” style of horror film is a new and grating subgenre that has grown old very quickly (if films like Open Windows and Unfriended are anything to go by) and films about demonic possessions have also been done to death. Added to which is the idea of setting a film in the current pandemic which seems at best trite and at worst incredibly opportunistic.

However, Host manages to sidestep all of these issues, and the result is one of the more refreshing additions to the subgenre, with potentially the best ensemble female cast in a horror film since The Descent. There’s a little hand wringing about being stuck indoors, but by and large the pandemic provides a valid and understandable context for why these friends are all meeting up via Zoom. The introduction of a Seance is a little more contrived, but that hardly matters when the rest of the film is so good.

Adapted from a prank played by director Rob Savage during lockdown, Host takes place entirely over the course of a Zoom call. Everything you see onscreen happens on a character’s Zoom window and generally this works really well. Haley (Haley Bishop) and her close knit group of friends have been coping through lockdown by having regular online catchups. However when it’s Haley’s turn to host she wants to try something new – a seance. When one of her friends (Jemma Moore) plays a prank on the medium, the friends find that they may have inadvertently brought something through from the other side, and are left to watch helplessly as each of them are terrorised by a demonic presence.

What Host does, it does very well. It’s short runtime helps with the scares immeasurably (The duration is also conveniently the length of a free zoom call!) and it manages to use the central conceit to it’s advantage, making effective use of connectivity issues, facial filters and camera backgrounds to enhance the horror. Most effectively, Host plays off the idea that on a zoom call you are simultaneously connected and isolated. You might fell safe in a group but actually you are alone and vulnerable. Added to this is a hint of meta-commentary on the impact extended time online has on your mental health. Zoom calls are increasingly familiar with audiences so anything out of the ordinary is especially jarring, and the neat tricks used make the film feel all the more claustrophobic.

The initial subtle moments are genuinely creepy, but even better is they way Savage wrong-foots you , leading you to expect only glasses smashing or chairs being pulled, before building to some truly nasty moments with impressive effects. The only aspect that felt a little like a cheat was the very end, which sacrifices the emotion you’ve invested and stirling characterisation for a cruel punchline.

Despite the limited setting, Host is weirdly reminiscent of The Descent in the depiction of the friendships at it’s centre. Without much in the way of backstory, the performances are realistic and lived in, and there is so much suggested at in terms of past arguments and continuing tensions within the group. A couple of the characters are quite roughly sketched, but the characterisation is strong enough to get across exactly who each of them are.

The few fleeting references to the Covid lockdown simply serve to add nicely judged human moments to the film. The scene towards the end where two characters do the elbow handshake is a silly but undeniably touching moment, while Radina’s prickly relationship with her boyfriend has only been exacerbated by being stuck in a flat together. All of this contributes to the story, establishing threads that pay off in the film’s intense climax, and makes the film feel uniquely placed in the here and now.

This is a much better film than it needed to be. The cast are all great and manage to convey their relationships without overt exposition dumps, and their characters are believable and likeable. More than anything else, Host is scary in a way that sticks with you. It doesn’t rely on the gimmick of it’s central conceit and instead speaks to universal fears of the inexplicable, like an updated MR James story. A punchy, efficient horror that does what it does brilliantly.

Special Features

This excellent limited edition release from Second Sight comes crammed with a bunch of great special features, including “Is There Goblins Now?” the prank call that inspired the feature, Commentaries with the cast and crew, a Q&A at the BFI and much more. Best of the lot are Rob Savage’s earlier two short films, Salt & Dawn Of The Deaf, both of which are especially creepy and set the mood brilliantly, putting you in a fittingly apprehensive headspace ahead of the main feature.

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