Wednesday 12 August 2020


Six friends come together for what is assumed to be a regular Zoom chat (the film lasts, more or less, the duration of a non pay Zoom call). There's host Haley (Haley Bishop), app obsessed Emma (Emma Louise Webb), whose manipulation of her image presages more frightening manifestations later, Jemma (Jemma Moore), nervous Caroline (Caroline Ward), Radina (Radina Dandrova) and token guy, fun Teddy (Edward Linard) whose rather controlling girlfriend Jinny (Jinny Lofthouse) seems to be universally disliked by the rest of his friends and finds a way to absent him from most of the call.

But this call is different: the friends have agreed to carry out an online seance, brokered by an acquaintance of Haley's, Seylan (Seylan Baxter), who joins the call and sets up the terms of what they're about to do. They're all slightly nervous except sweary Teddy who suggests that they all down a shot every time the medium mentions the words 'astral plane.' As he's soon taken out of the picture courtesy of possessive Jinny, it's left to the remaining five friends to light candles and summon the spirits. Seylan encourages them to think of someone they knew who has departed; they've also been asked to bring an item to the call which they associate with that person (cue dolls and spooky musical boxes). Oh, and to be respectful to the spirits.

Things starts quietly, until Jemma feels pressure on her throat, and tells the group that she thinks the visiting spirit may be that of Jack, a kid from her school who was nice to her and who subsequently hanged himself. But Jemma confesses that she made the whole thing up, which is not only disrespectful but, the group learn a bit later, thoroughly dangerous, in that it opens the way for a trickster demon to come through from the other side. And sure enough, that is exactly what happens.

In fairness Savage's lockdown-inspired chiller doesn't put anything new on the table thematically. The horror genre has seen a few screen bound movies before, dating back to 2002's The Collingswood Story with its online psychic wreaking havoc, 2014's Open Windows, Unfriended from the same year and that movie's 2018 sequel Unfriended: Dark Web. Host also nods to the CCTV tensions of the Paranormal Activity movies, which pulled off the seemingly un-cinematic trick of inviting viewers to stare at footage of empty rooms, hoping yet not hoping to catch something moving in the shadows.

So what then makes Host, with its compact running time, one of the best fright flicks of the year? In part it's the believability of the piece; the ability to video conference has existed for many years, but the post-lockdown ubiquity of software like Zoom makes the film's setup immediately recognisable. The cast are also very capable; their ability to convey details of their characters and interrelationships with the others in a few lines of script - such as Radina's difficult relationship with her live in boyfriend and the friends' collective coolness towards Jinny - removes the need for clunky exposition which would have bogged the film down.

Equally importantly Rogers knows how to frighten. Cleverly he signposts the online trickery of the second half of the movie by having Emma messing around with FaceApp - with the the usual borderline grotesque results - and Radina creating a real time Zoom background of herself. Later, once the demon has entered the machine these tricks will be cruelly co-opted as the trickster makes its attacks. And the director manages a dazzling array of scary set pieces as the entity starts invading the girls' lives, and more importantly homes; in fact there's enough soundtrack and visual glitches to make you want to watch it all over again - if your nerves can stand it, that is. Yes, many of the ideas - lights blowing, chairs moving, bodies being thrown, a Polaroid camera's flash being used to illuminate the darkness - are not new, but Rogers manages to mount these scenes without blowing the fourth wall of the Zoom window structure; in fact the poor laptop camera quality actually enhances some of the spooky scenes. He also carefully leavens the horror with some humour: when one of the girls manages to gain entry to another's home near the end of the movie to check if her friend is still alive, when they finally find each other they move to hug, then remember the rules and elbow bump instead. And, during the seance, frantic knocking - perhaps supernatural in nature - at Seylan's house - turns out to be the Ocado driver delivering the medium's on line grocery order.

There have been a number of lockdown movies made in recent months, and doubtless there will be more, but Rob Savage has set the bar pretty high in a movie that is zeitgeisty and terrifying in equal amounts. See it, and then see it again for all the bits you missed first time round.

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