In his 1964 book Understanding Media, academic, philosopher and Communication guru Marshall McLuhan coined a phrase even more relevant today than it was then: “The Medium is the Message.” In simplified terms, he told us that how we communicate in the modern age is even more influential than what we communicate.
It’s uncanny how well that statement applies in today’s world of instantaneous digital media, where nearly anyone can call up just about anything they want to watch, read or hear in a manner of seconds. It’s even more relevant now, with the COVID-19 pandemic preventing most of us from personal contact with friends, family and co-workers, forcing us to rely on sometimes shaky tech to stay in touch.
It’s a frightening existential dilemma — one which director Rob Savage and an extremely talented team of actors and crew use to brilliant advantage in the creation of their amazing multi-screen horror film Host, which premiered Friday on Shudder with surprisingly little fanfare.
As it turns out, word-of-mouth quickly turned this micro-budget experiment into an overnight phenomenon among horror fans, who would undoubtedly agree with McLuhan’s concept: the functionality of Zoom conferencing (the app of choice during COVID lockdown) has proven to be an effective method of screen storytelling — which, in the wrong hands, would come off as a mere gimmick. But Savage and his team knew exactly how to exploit the platform for maximum terror while tapping into very real feelings of isolation, helplessness and paranoia. It’s saying a lot that Host has quickly generated such an avid following — considering we can experience real-life horrors by simply switching on the evening news.
“Desktop Horror,” in which the entire plot plays out on a single computer monitor, is still a tiny subgenre in itself… though I expect not for long. It’s been tried before, and often with effective results: Both Unfriended and its sequel made clever use of online conferencing to create real-time scares; 2013’s The Den pulls off the same trick equally well. Since then, features like Searching and #FollowMe have explored the same territory through the eyes of more recent tech, with varying degrees of success. But I can confidently say Host blows them all off the screen (so to speak), thanks to superb performances, well-choreographed stunts, and a brief runtime that expends just enough energy establishing character relationships to make the threat even more convincing… before diving straight into unbearable suspense and heart-stopping shocks.
Without spoiling the film’s secrets, here’s the basic breakdown: Haley (Haley Bishop — all characters go by the actors’ real names), the “host” of the title and the only American character, is organizing an online meet-up with her British girlfriends and a token male pal. We get the impression the group has done this on the regular since the pandemic began… but this particular session is different: Haley has invited psychic medium Seylan to lead the friends in a “virtual seance.” While it’s not made clear exactly why, it’s implied Haley suspects there’s an unseen presence in her apartment.
While many of the attendees are jokingly dismissive of Seylan’s involvement — particularly practical joker Jemma — and the melancholy Caroline is clearly spooked by the idea, they all agree to play along. The token male, Teddy, drops out early on — but he’s in for one hell of a surprise when he finally comes back.
Right off the bat, it seems the seance has provoked a paranormal reaction, but this turns out to be a ruse. What follows, however, is the real deal: a malevolent entity has joined the call… and it’s not happy to be the butt of a silly joke.
The second half of Host is basically a variation on the old “Seance Gone Horribly Wrong” scenario we’ve seen in dozens of other horror movies — but Savage and his team manage to find all new ways to mine that topic for maximum terror, milking every drop of suspense from the rapidly-escalating nightmare, and those methods often come from the medium itself: Zoom’s well-known functions and features are incorporated into the story seamlessly — and even those who have played around with the app’s face filters and replacement backgrounds may not see some of these moments coming.
If you’re not a fan of so-called “Found Footage” horror (I hate that term, by the way), your mileage may vary. There are many moments reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, though used in Zoom-centric ways that bring new life to an otherwise tired technique. Also, like those films before it, Host is less about delivering in-your-face shocks than building unbearable tension as we wait for the scares that we know are coming. At only 56 minutes (based on the limitation imposed on the free version of Zoom), Host is definitely worth a look. You may even find yourself watching it a second time in search of subtle background details that you may have missed in the first viewing.
It remains to be seen whether Host will touch off a new trend in desktop filmmaking, or will eventually be dismissed as a gimmick born out of creative boredom. Either way, you should check it out for yourself — preferably on your laptop in a dark room, with headphones for maximum effect.