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by Matt Pifko

Despite a timely premise, Host fails to do anything fresh with a well-worn sub-genre.

Mysteriously dropping onto Shudder and featuring a cast of unfamiliar faces, Host follows a cluster of friends fleeing from an invisible and deadly threat. Trapped in their isolated homes, they try to make contact over the internet.

Sound familiar? That’s right. The lean, mean, money-making machine has done it – horror has finally caught up with COVID-19.

This is hardly the first time that the sub-genre of found footage has been used to cut around cumbersome filmmaking corners and deliver bloodcurdling chills on the most limited of budgets (see: Blair Witch Project). Host, as a concept, feels less innovative and more inevitable. What genre, if not found footage, was going to be the first to capture our predicament? With the help of stunt coordinators from Lucky 13 Action, a couple of game actors, and some digital effects, thrifty filmmaker Rob Savage has managed to do the impossible and patch together a sturdy 56 minute horror film during this new social distancing reality.

His film is the latest in a recent line of ‘computer screen‘ films, suggesting that 2015’s Unfriended was much more important to the evolution of the found footage genre than we gave it credit for at the time. While screen-based slasher The Den debuted quietly on VOD a year prior, Unfriended’s confident wide theatrical release proclaimed the arrival of a new subgenre. From the moment its first trailer dropped, Blumhouse’s Skype slasher lodged into the American cultural consciousness. In the years since, countless memes, parodies, and knockoffs have spawned from its simple yet indelibly relevant premise. Whether you were laughing at it for its cheap attempt at relevancy or genuinely impressed by its update on traditional film language, Unfriended was an undisputed cultural moment. 

Host is our first Coronavirus horror film, and yet, the current pandemic isn’t even really the focus at all. In a bold move, the real world crisis is relegated to set-dressing in favor of a more immediate supernatural threat. Demons, it seems, do not adhere to the six-foot rule. Chatting via Zoom video conference, a plucky group of comfortably middle class Millennials have decided to pass the time by holding a digital seance. The seance goes awry rather quickly, as seances tend to do, and each of their homes are infected with an insidious paranormal presence. 

The friends, led by the eternally frowning buzzkill Haley (Haley Bishop), have hired a spiritualist to guide them through this journey. The seance leader, Seylan (Seylan Baxter), remarks that she’s never done this over Zoom before. She‘s always performed her sacred ritual with people physically holding hands around a candle. Now they’re separated by oceans. This should be fine, right?

With their chances at survival dependent on some pretty patchy WiFi, hysteria sets in quick, followed by ample bloodshed. Trivial matters such as character development and pacing are chopped out to get to the gore quicker. The film takes place in real time over the hour window that Zoom affords its free users, a gimmick that seems motivated more by laziness than artistic intent. In fact the premise, aside from the occasional glib references to mask wearing and sharing a house with your parents, is nearly identical to Unfriended. Rather than serving as a radical change of pace that adjusts for the radical change in our real world, Host merely feels like a follow up to a more aesthetically significant film. A serviceable follow-up, but ultimately disposable.

This reluctance to include hamfisted coronavirus commentary could be seen as a positive. Indeed, one might argue that subtlety and emotional realism is best for a po-faced found footage horror film such as this one. Perhaps that would hold true if Host wasn’t filmed and released into our current American hellscape – unfortunately, it was. Subtlety feels out of place in a time when the most basic tenets of life have been dashed to bits in nightmarish fashion. It feels even more out of place in a gimmicky thrill ride announced via surprise-release.

To its credit, Host delivers on the aforementioned thrills. Its taut and shortened structure is engineered for maximum fright efficiency. Jumpscares land, deaths are brutal, and there is an overwhelming sensation of helplessness as you watch these friends shout and bargain with their dying loved one. The brief glimpses we get of the creeps terrorizing our protagonists are surprisingly convincing for such a flimsy tale, their festering and bloody wounds suggesting that Haley and friends may have accidentally summoned the undead. Or are they demons? Savage doesn’t seem to care much one way or another. One wishes that the creative team spent a little more time fleshing out these hideous specters, but of course one wishes they spent a little more time fleshing out this movie in general. It’s hard to describe Host as frustrating because, in all honesty, it was never aiming for anything higher than ‘diverting’ and ‘distracting’. First and foremost it is a feat of filmmaking, a magic show, a card trick. One can practically hear Savage hollering from behind the camera, “Can you believe we made this? Pretty cool right!”. And yes, it is pretty cool. It is also as mediocre, formless, and devoid of feeling as an obligatory Zoom call with your relatives.