It’s well known that horror is often reflective of the times that it’s made in, so it was only a matter of time before a filmmaker came along and made a Zoom based horror movie. Shudder’s Host is just that—a found footage horror movie centered around an ill-fated séance that takes place over Zoom. And while it struggles to overcome some of the more annoying tropes in the horror sub-genre, it also offers a supernatural reflection of the anxiety caused by our current pandemic.
Host follows a small handful of characters who, in order to spice things up, decide to have a Zoom séance. Haley (Haley Bishop) has a spiritual medium friend named Seylan (Seylan Baxter…there’s a theme to how these characters are named) who leads the group of six friends in their efforts to communicate with the dead. The problem comes when Jemma (Jemma Moore) doesn’t take things seriously and makes up a story about a person named Jack who supposedly helped her when she cracked her head open a few years ago. Her making up this fake ghost accidentally opens a bridge for something far more sinister to come in from the other side. Cue 40 or so minutes of ghostly shenanigans.
Host’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. At 56 minutes, this is technically a short film, and that allows the story to move along at a really nice clip. The first 15 or so minutes are spent learning a little bit about each character before the supernatural events start, and the second half is brisk, with deaths and mayhem coming swiftly. On the other hand, it does feel like a lot is missing. There’s no explanation for who or what is coming for these young people or what it wants beyond just murdering them. The characters are also paper-thin. We get some slight information about Radina (played by, you guessed it, Radina Drandova) in that she is quarantining with her boyfriend, who may or may not have an anger problem. We also learn that Caroline (Caroline Ward) is quarantining with her dad. Neither of these elements really come back into play, save a silly jump scare involving Radina’s boyfriend later on.
It all leads me to the conclusion that each individual’s enjoyment of Host will be based heavily on what they’re expecting going into it. It certainly delivers a brief, straightforward found footage thrill ride with some solid camera work, particularly in an attic sequence, adding to a slight sense of dread. I can’t help but feel that there was an opportunity to dig more into the very real anxiety that comes around from being forced to quarantine. With Radina’s boyfriend, it could have been interesting to see their unstable living situation come into play, maybe messing with Radina in some way. There’s a brief mention by Caroline that her dad goes out too frequently, which could have been a nice riff on many peoples’ fear for their elderly loved ones. After all, it seems that Covid-19 is most lethal to the elderly, but both of these characters are on screen for a few seconds before they go away.
At the very least, though, the performances help sell the fear the characters feel. Everyone is pretty solid across the board, acting convincingly frightened when they need to. While Host does fall into the found footage trap of characters sometimes acting obnoxious (the character of Teddy, played by Edward Linard, absolutely refuses to take anything seriously when he’s on-screen, which does beg the question of why the group included him in this séance in the first place), you can still buy that this is a group of friends who are struggling through quarantine, just like most of us.
While using Zoom to frame the proceedings does feel a bit gimmicky, it allows for some creativity in how things play out. Perhaps the most notable instance of this is with Caroline, whose background is a loop of her walking around her room on her phone. Then, when bad things start happening to her, we get flashes of what’s going on as her face pops up from the background. It’s a grimy, unique image that uses the format pretty well. This movie also has really creative credits, with all the cast and crew being listed at the end as Zoom contacts, which was pretty neat.
Images of the supernatural entity are smartly kept to brief flashes, but I could have used more in the way of explanation. Not too much more, but something to chew on. It seems that strangulation/ hanging is a recurring theme, since we see a noose and feet dangling from the ceiling at one point, and these effects are pulled off well. I imagine that the grainy image quality of Zoom helped the crew pull off the simple but effective tricks they use to convey supernatural terror. But we are given almost nothing outside the name of Jack as to what this being is. Is it a vengeful ghost? Some kind of demon? I have no idea. I don’t usually mind ambiguity in my supernatural horror movies (it’s a big reason I loved Hereditary), but here I yearned for some kind of small morsel to savor. It could have gone a long way into potentially setting this up as the first entry in a series.
I find it interesting that Shudder seems to be going all-in on hour-long short films. Between this and the insanely awesome Blood Machines, they’ve shown that they’re unafraid to let filmmakers take as much or as little time as they need to tell their story. With Host, they’ve produced a found footage movie that is a very literal reflection of the scary time we’re all living in. What could have come across as gimmicky, with its use of Zoom, instead is used to generate some mild but effective chills. I do think the movie could have gone further in its exploration of the anxieties of living through a global pandemic, but as it stands, there are much worse ways to spend an hour, particularly for fans of found footage horror.
A screener for Host was provided by Shudder for the purposes of this review. Host is now streaming on Shudder.