Host Story: The Hype And The Horror

The scariest film of the last decade, apparently – but does Host live up to the claims that it is the horror film we all need for the Covid Age?

I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I find more appealing after a hard day’s Zooming with awful work colleagues – okay, Mrs Reprobate’s awful work colleagues, but that’s by the by – that sitting down to spend another hour watching a fictional representation of the same thing. Presumably pitched at the sort of people who watch Coronation Street and Eastenders because “it’s just like real life” when the whole idea of entertainment is surely to get you away from the miserable realities of life for a few blessed hours, Host can best be praised for the authentic way that it captures the sheer dreadfulness of a bunch of middle-class women on a video chat, if that is something that anyone really needs recreating in fictional form. If horror works best when it speaks to our collective experiences and deepest fears, then this film succeeds all too well, as being locked into a chat with a collection of prosecco-quaffing narcissists is certainly something that hits both marks. I’ve sat through enough of Mrs R’s work Zooms where she slowly dies as the rest of her colleagues make small talk about how fantastic and relatable Emily In Paris is or gush about how the pinnacle of their lives was meeting Kylie to know that the first half of Host is crushingly, desperately authentic as it portrays a bunch of empty, vapid people being ghastly.

The problem is that I’m not entirely sure that these characters are supposed to be empty and vapid. There’s a part of me that suspects that director Rob Savage might think that these are people that we will like and relate to – that they are people just like us. In that, he’s no different from the horror filmmakers who populate their movies with numbingly awful characters that they somehow think that the audience for a film called, say, Zombeavers will connect with.

The film features a group of women – and one man who makes a brief appearance – who get together for a Zoom chat and have planned a seance with a medium (who, like the other characters, seems authentically dreadful). Essentially, this all goes along the usual horror route for such things – people don’t take it seriously, but nevertheless, manage to awaken some ancient evil that then stalks them. In this case, it’s a character who invents a story about a schoolfriend who killed himself who manages to set all the bad shit in motion, and to give the film credit, once things start happening, they generally happen quite quickly. More movies should consider clocking in at around an hour; they’d be a lot better for it.

The plus points here: as just mentioned, it moves at a solid pace once things get going, though you have to wade through a lot on authentic inanity to get there; there are definite moments that make you wonder just how the hell they were achieved; a few authentic jump scares, as Mrs R will attest; and the use of Zoom – a format that we are all very familiar with now – as a new twist on the found-footage style is handled fairly well. The found-footage movie has been somewhat run into the ground, thanks in large part to a stream of identikit ghost hunt movies that take their inspiration from dismal shows like Most Haunted, and so it’s always good to see a fresh approach to the format. And there is certainly no guarantee that Zoom-based horror movies will work – if we compare Host to the vaguely similar In the Shadows It Waits, then it is certainly a far more effective work.

But has it been overhyped? God, yes. I think that when this film first appeared on the Shudder platform, people were essentially crying out for something new that reflected the Covid era, and so were all too happy to heap praise on what is actually a very slight movie. People were bored and desperate, and Host proved to be the right film for the right time, immediately then hyped on assorted social media platforms – but we probably don’t want to rely on the opinions of Tik Tokkers too much. The only people who think that this is ‘the scariest film EVAH!’ are people who haven’t seen many horror films (or films, full-stop, you suspect). In truth, as brief as it is, the film still manages to pad out the first half with endless chit-chat that somehow still fails to establish any of the characters in more than the most flaccid of ways – all we really know about any of these people is that they seem entirely empty, the sort we wouldn’t possibly want to spend any time with. Perhaps international viewers will be a bit more forgiving just because the five main characters might seem less like the sort they encounter every day – I must admit to giving a sigh of despair when I realised that this was a British film, terrible as that might sound.

Covid-19 offers all manner of horror movie opportunities – the isolation of lockdown and the ‘what if’ scenarios of being trapped with an unknown presence, the contagion and mutation made possible by the lockdown-breakers, the paranoia of the Covid deniers and more suggest ideas to be explored. There’s also the possibility for Zoom formats to open up aspects of video game puzzle-solving and interactivity within a horror film, as we have been liberated – if that is the word – from the idea of a single-screen narrative. I think that the great lockdown horror movie has yet to be made. Whether it actually will be made is another matter; Host might yet prove to be the high spot of the genre.

It’s a film worth seeing; by the standards of woeful overhype, it is something of a modern horror masterpiece, by virtue of not making me want to gouge my own eyes out. Even during the first half, there is something compulsively awful about it that raises it above the merely awful of much ‘elevated horror’. In many ways, the no-nonsense nature of the film is something to applaud and I’ll take this tight and compact story over the wandering indulgence of a Midsommar any day. Is cinema a dead format in a post-Covid world? Probably not, though perhaps studios and producers might, as their bloated blockbusters sit gathering dust or going straight to streaming, start to think about new ways of making movies; if 2020 has helped bring about an end to overblown, obscenely-priced live-action cartoons, then it might have been worth all the misery. I’m being facetious, of course – I have no more hope that Host will help usher in an age of tighter, smaller, more intimate movies now than I had that The Blair Witch Project‘s success would twenty years ago. We can dream though.

Anyway – give Host a watch, with suitably lowered expectations and perhaps more patience than I have for inane chit-chat, and you’ll probably find enough moments of creepiness and jump-scare horror cliches to keep you happy if you are less fussy than me (and you probably are). Dare I say that it’ll work better on your laptop or monitor or even phone than on TV? Blasphemous, I know. I guess it depends on how you Zoom to begin with. But to end on a positive – if nothing else, this film might at least give you some fresh fantasies to have about what is lurking behind your colleagues at the next Zoom-fest when they start telling you ‘hilarious’ stories about what young Henry did during his home-schooling this week.

DAVID FLINT

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4 comments

  1. “More movies should consider clocking in at around an hour; they’d be a lot better for it.”

    Totally agree with this.

    I enjoyed upsetting a work colleague once, who’d spent his hard-earned on the extended director’s cut boxset of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ cinevents, by suggesting Peter Jackson should have combined all three movies into one 90-minute blast starring Jason Statham.

  2. I found it pretty effective once it got going, as you point out. Couldn’t stand any of the characters, but that’s par for the found-footage subgenre in general. I also wholeheartedly endorse its brevity. It knew when to quit.

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