There is a new horror movie on Shudder. This is not news. Shudder releases new content every other week, but this one is unique. It’s called Host. It was made during our current era of Covid and quarantine and takes place during that timeframe. So, of course, it takes place entirely on Zoom, an app that I think most of us had never heard of before March of 2020 and one that has become immeasurably important now. It is also less than 60 minutes long. The film focuses on a group of friends who decide that it might be fun to conduct a séance during a Zoom session and…lets just say that things go awry. I heard of this concept for the first time a few weeks ago and scoffed at it, in my typically arrogant way. “How could that work as a movie?”, I shouted to no one. “How dare you capitalize on a real life tragedy?”, I railed to the walls. “How stupid can you be?”, I said to myself as I paced around my apartment for the 100th time in a single day. I put the film on because I wanted to either laugh at it or confirm my suspicions that it was a hollow, offensive endeavor. I was wrong on both counts. Host is close to masterpiece. A genuinely frightening, inventive, exciting, well performed, well made, genre exercise that somehow manages to capture the anxiety we are all feeling right now while holding its own as a purely skillful horror movie. It’s terrific. And it’s the first movie I’ve seen in ages that genuinely scared the crap out of me.
The premise, as I’ve said, is simple. Six friends who have been stuck in quarantine, for what appears to be quite awhile, meet up on Zoom and hold a séance. Right away, every character is fully realized and genuine. Their dialogue cracks with authenticity. There’s nothing performative, no knowing winks to the audience, no clever references to Covid, nothing that makes you feel like this isn’t really happening right now. It just feels as if you are part of the Zoom session. Because you know these people. Anyone who has a solid friend group will connect to the way they talk to each other, to the way in-jokes work, to the way that petty grievances rise to the surface in any conversation, and to the genuine affection they all have for one another.
And that might be the movie’s greatest asset. The fact that we instantly like these people adds a lot to the terror that eventually unfolds. A LOT happens in this movie. If you’re wondering how much mileage a filmmaker can get out of a Zoom session, it’s as if director Rob Savage asked the same question and decided he would milk that idea for all it’s worth. Does the film rely on jump scares? YOU BET. But they’re all earned and the whole work has this palpable sense of dread that each and every viewer will feel. There’s something insidious about the way it takes the edict of “stay home and stay safe” and then asks the question of, “but what if your home isn’t safe either?” For these characters, in these times, there is literally nowhere to run.
A quick word about jump scares now. There is this odd myth among horror fans and critics that jump scares are cheap and reduce horror films to ‘funhouse rides’. Enough with that. Jump scares can work when they are earned and when they are based around a situation that the audience can understand and relate too. They’re not cheap if they’re based in a semblance of reality. And every jump scare in Host fully captures that sickening feeling when you’re alone in your home and hear a strange noise. Or see something that shouldn’t be there. Or just when you get that prickly feeling on the back of your neck that tells you that something is off. It captures the fears of being alone without exploiting them but by observing them carefully and with great empathy.
And while we’re on the subject of empathy, this is not a movie made to exploit the Covid era but one that was made to reflect it. Like all great horror films, it takes a long, hard look at a real world issue and filters it through a palpable lens that we can all understand. Part of the reason it feels so lived in and real is that the actors are all playing versions of themselves. Their dialogue feels so natural because they all know each other and have clearly had variations on these conversations and dynamics. It feels real because, to a certain extent, it is real. And it’s the kind of movie that would never have been made were it not for the state of the world. I’ve been dancing around saying this but the hell with it: Host feels like the first great piece of art to come out of our current predicament.
Beyond that though, it’s just a damn good horror movie. One that feels like it fully understands how you can use the camera to fill the viewer with dread. We’re constantly scanning every aspect of the frame because we know that something terrible is lurking right on the edge of it. And it’s clever in the way it uses Zoom to enhance that aspect. I’ve spoken with several friends who have watched it and they were all DEEPLY affected by it. One friend in particular sent me several texts that just amounted to, “I’m terrified” over and over again. (Hope you’re ok, Ana).
It’s also refreshing to see a movie that has zero interest in classical character tropes. None of these people can be labeled as the ‘stoner’ or the ‘slut’, as so many horror movies fall back on. They’re all just people. People who we know. So when they get dragged across the room or set on fire by an unseen entity, we REALLY feel it. It reminded me a bit of The Blair Witch Project in the sense that it just feels so lived in. But you know what? I liked this better.
Perhaps that’s just because of the state of the world right now. Maybe Host won’t hold up in ten years. But for now? This is the type of movie we need. It’s a forward thinking entry in an ancient genre and one that proves that horror will always be relevant. And goddamn, it’s less than 60 minutes long? There are 3 hour movies that don’t approach the depths of Host. I can’t wait to watch it again. And you should watch it too. But maybe just make sure you have a close friend nearby who you can run to. Just don’t hug them when they save you. Rub elbows. Cuz no matter what, even if you’re being stalked by an evil demon, it’s important to still practice social distancing.