When it comes to films and shows made during the global pandemic, there’s a fine line between ingenuity and desperation. We’re all still trapped in some way and while for many of us, that trap might have increased in scale in recent weeks, it remains a trap nonetheless. For directors, at least in some parts of the world, it’s starting to expand considerably but many are still stuck with making the best of very little, armed with just the most basic technology. The limitations they face recall those of the found-footage era, particularly the sub-subgenre of films that took place entirely within laptop screens, such as Unfriended and Searching. But those restrictions were self-inflicted, not forced. In the frantic rush to keep busy and keep profitable, we’re seeing a flood of lazy made-at-home productions that will be forgotten whenever things go back to some sort of normal.
Earning a solid B for effort is the British director Rob Savage, who has taken the least appealing of concepts – a Zoom-based horror – and turned it into a genuinely effective little chiller called Host. Inspired by a medium telling him that Covid-19 business was booming, he assembled a remote group of seven actors to play friends making the ill-advised decision to conduct a seance over video chat. As absurd as the premise might be, the film plays out with at least one foot on the ground, surprisingly, as characters mostly react in ways that seem rooted in reality. In the world of the film, the virus does exist but, believably at this stage, it’s rarely commented on – a mask here, a joke about coughing there – and while there might be a few too many “lemme go investigate that noise” moments, the interplay between the actors feels real, as if we were actually watching a group of friends facing supernatural dangers. It’s this concerted effort to really sell what’s happening that allows us to forgive a few of the sillier moments.
The actors are also forced to act as camera operators and, as the story progresses, special effects technicians too. Savage didn’t set foot in any of the locations and instead gave directions remotely, which, in the last chaotic act, turns the film into a “how the hell did they manage that” technical feat. There’s a smattering of devilishly well-timed jump-scares that work best when our confusion leads us to examine the screen closer, unsure where within the frame a demonic presence might lie. While there might be an equal number of them that really don’t work, Savage wisely wraps things up within an hour, keeping his film tight enough for the bum notes to fade fast – and he ends it with a vicious bang, followed by some ingenious end credits.
Host is a lean, nasty little exercise that might not linger for very long but it shows what can be done during this difficult time. Once regular shooting resumes, we should look forward to whatever Savage comes up with next.