Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on basement television.
It’s a rare horror movie that can sustain itself for more than 100 minutes. Horror tends to be about the quick hit—give us a character or two to care about, put them in some terrifying situation, and see how things shake out. Horror is visceral and while it can also be cerebral, it certainly doesn’t have to be. It’s why horror works well for anthologies, at least in theory. If you can scare your audience, that’s enough. Host, produced in 2020 during the lockdowns, walks that middle ground. It’s a slim 56 minutes—not quite feature length, but too big for a typical anthology—which makes it a bit of a queer duck.
Like a lot of good horror, Host has a high concept and works it as well as it can. The elevator pitch for this is, “What would happen if people did a séance over Zoom and actually attracted the attention of something terrible?” It’s a very simple premise, and it lasts roughly the length of an “I didn’t pay for this” Zoom call. We’re going to spend the entire film essentially as an additional silent participant in the call, watching everything from what is essentially a laptop screen.
The premise, as mentioned above, is what we’re going to get in the very quick set-up. A group of friends, separated during the COVID lockdowns, have a weekly Zoom call to keep in touch. For this one, they have decided to hold a séance under the direction of a medium, who will hopefully guide them into having a real experience. Our participants view this with varying forms of skepticism, including an impromptu drinking game of taking a shot every time the medium says “astral plane,” which honestly sounds like something I would do.
Because Host is a mere 56 minutes, our characters aren’t going to get a great deal of characterization, and to keep things simple, all of the characters are going to be named after the actual actors. Our participants are Haley (Haley Bishop), Jemma (Jemma Moore), Emma (Emma Louise Webb), Radina (Radina Drandova), Caroline (Caroline Ward), and Teddy (Edward Linard). Our medium is Seylan (Seylan Baxter), and incidental characters will include Teddy’s girlfriend Jinny (Jinny Lofthouse) and Radina’s boyfriend Alan (Alan Emrys).
Right away, Teddy gets pulled out of the séance. Shortly after it begins, Jemma claims to feel a presence around her, and then Seylan loses connection, leaving the other five participants to discuss things on their own. It turns out that Jemma faked everything—she made up the story about the person she knew who was dead because things weren’t happening fast enough. And then, of course, things start happening.
Eventually, we reconnect with Seylan who tells the participants that Jemma not respecting the spirits may have allowed something evil into their midst and they need to carefully back out of the ceremony. And, naturally, this isn’t going to work as well as they want it to, because the supernatural events keep happening, and they begin intensifying. This continues to ramp up until the sudden and abrupt ending. The fact that Teddy comes back at one point into the middle of this descent into terror only makes the whole thing that much better.
Because of how Host works, virtually all of the scares are jump scares. It’s my opinion that the jump scare tends to be the easiest form of scare to produce in a film—drop in something sudden and unexpected and you’re done. A housecat can be an effective jump scare if you play it right. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t scary or that they aren’t effective, only that they are a lot less work than going for something a lot deeper and disturbing. Host doesn’t have that kind of time, so it works the jump scares as well as it can, and a lot of them are extremely good. The moment where Caroline checks her attic, for instance, is a great scare even if, afterwards, it feels a bit cheap because it’s just a jump scare.
Host is really effective, and one of the main reasons for this is because of how fast it is. There’s no fat on this, and even the initial moments are worth seeing. There are little moments here that are fantastic because of how they keep the narrative attached to the real world. There’s something both funny and terrifying about the fact that Emma has put a filter on her face when things weren’t going wrong and can’t get rid of it, so she’s absolutely terrified while a snake filter makes her look silly. It boosts the verisimilitude of this and makes the entire experience much more familiar.
This was a surprise, and an almost entirely pleasant one. A great idea for a film carried out well and without any fat that needs trimming. It could probably be another 10 minutes longer, even 15 minutes, but there’s no need for that to happen, either.
Why to watch Host: A great modern horror film that uses the pandemic without being about the pandemic.
Why not to watch: All of the scares are jump scares.