Host Review: Ghost in the Machine

As a horror die-hard, I’ll be the first to admit that watching a found footage movie always feels like a gamble. Even when these films have a promising set-up, they rarely deliver on their potential. Too often, movies in this genre boil down to the same irritating clichés, like watching the camera shake all about as scared people run around in the dark and scream.

I’ve lost count of how many times I finished a found footage flick wishing I had the last 80-minutes of my life back. Which leads us to one obvious question: why do I keep watching found footage films?

When these movies do work, they offer one of the most electrifying experiences in all cinema. Almost anyone can shoot a found footage movie, but few people can make them well. So when you give an innovative filmmaker a clever premise and then let them run wild with found footage’s verité style, the result is exhilarating.

Movies like Host are the reason I don’t give up on this wildly inconsistent genre. Host’s director, Rob Savage, examines the horrors of life in quarantine – the entire film takes place on a Zoom call – but ups the ante by adding a supernatural twist. The result is a hair-raising horror-thriller that delivers some of the year’s best scares.

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Haley (Haley Bishop), Jemma (Jemma Moore), Emma (Emma Louise Webb), Radina (Radina Drandova), Caroline (Caroline Ward), and Teddy (Edward Linard), are tired of life in quarantine. And who can blame them? The young and hip pack of millennials are in the prime of their lives. For them, being stuck at home for months is like doing time in a Soviet Gulag.

The group decide to spice up their dull lives by hooking up in a Zoom call to gossip, drink, and… speak to the dead. The group hires a psychic medium to lead them through a ghostly encounter, and it doesn’t take long for things to go off the rails. Instead of summoning a friendly spirit, they invite a demonic presence into their homes.

I’ll say this upfront: Host wipes the floor with most found footage flicks – It’s one of the year’s best horror movies. The main reason Host works so well is because it clocks in at just under an hour, and doesn’t waste a single minute. Found footage films tend to be excruciating slow-burns that save all the “good stuff” for the final ten minutes. Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage, and Jed Shepherd’s lean script takes a different approach. Host goes from 0 – 100 in its first fifteen minutes and never lets up so you can collect yourself.

The film gives you just enough time with the cast early on to get a sense of who these people are before throwing their lives into chaos. Unlike most slasher flicks, this group of friends don’t come across as cookie-cutter characters who only exist to get picked off by an evil force. The cast’s dialogue and line deliveries have an authenticity to them that makes you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on a real Zoom call.

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Host doesn’t feel limited by its small budget and contains several fantastic set pieces guaranteed to make your blood run cold. Aside from one brilliant sequence involving a Snapchat-style facial filter, this film takes a page from The Conjuring playbook: it freaks you out by limiting what you see. Savage really MacGyvered the hell out of this production, putting lo-fi practical effects to excellent use. Glasses shatter, lights flicker, and invisible forces drag terrified victims out of the frame.

Host works as a lean, mean horror-thriller, but it also functions as a commentary on the way people today must juggle two versions of themselves: their actual self and their digital persona. Host isn’t rich with subtext alluding to the perils of the Facebook generation. But it does acknowledge the façades we put on when we enter digital spaces. Specifically, the ways we curate how others perceive us – taking a Zoom call in front of a chic background and then spending way too much time looking for the most flattering camera angle. Six months ago, most people hadn’t heard of Zoom, so I got a kick out of watching a 2020 film that pokes fun at Zoom-culture’s emerging quirks.

It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood hits us with a wave of movies about life during the pandemic. Any film that rushed into production to capitalize on the quarantine this quickly (Host dropped in July) shouldn’t be so enjoyable. Host works like gangbusters, mostly because it never feels gimmicky. While trapping everyone inside their homes does add to the tension, a story about friends holding an online séance would have worked in a pre-coronavirus world. The coronavirus laying in wait outside their doors only provides an additional layer of menace.

Don’t let the found footage genre’s shoddy track-record sway you from giving Host a chance. This movie’s grounded look and feel make the horrors it reveals seem all too real, upping the scare-factor. Host’s eerie premise, rock-solid performances, and break-neck pacing add up to a thrilling fright-fest destined to fuel countless nightmares.

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Host is currently available to stream on Shudder.

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