Monday, August 3, 2020

Host / *** (2020)

Any discussion we can have about “Host” ought to begin with the genius of its timing. Made on the cheap, conceptualized in isolation and filmed entirely on web cameras during the recent Covid-19 quarantine, director Rob Savage took an idea previously used in the “Unfriended” series and spun it on its head, using it to an advantage that reflected this strange and frightening time of social distancing. All its stars, situations and setups are executed in a way that involves no one ever being in the same room with one another, although their cellphones and computers are all functional when they are haunted by a malevolent spirit moving between them. How does it come to be, and how do the six key players of the movie summon it on an evening when their remote gathering progresses into a gradual, unrelenting nightmare? That is part of the fun in this well-made little “found footage” picture that shows remarkable skill and modulation given the urgency at which it was formulated and released. Now available as an exclusive on the Shudder streaming service, Savage has breathed refreshing new life into a sub-genre that has long been floundering for new inspirations.

Think of what it means to say that in 2020, well after the film circles have begun dismissing “found footage” as the most tired gimmick of the horror canon. What an insight the notion presents. After so much attempt, so many isolated vehicles, in which little is accomplished other than repetition, along comes a singular impulse in which the momentum of the idea is propelled by its technique rather than enslaved by it. Most such endeavors, especially in the last few years, have the strange dichotomy of tonal overkill; among all the conventional tropes of hyperactive camera edits and improvised dialogue exchanges are ideas too elaborate to seem likely, especially as they are discovered in incidental routines. The backbone of “Host” wisely implicates all the relevant common bonds. There is no way this plot, this idea, would work in any other format. And if there is to be a silver lining surrounding this current health crisis as it continues to place perpetual barriers between people, concepts like these may, at long last, find a footing for new degrees of relevance.

The idea of the premise is straightforward and deadpan. One night during the first phase of the lockdown, six friends have decided to jump into a Zoom meeting to partake in a virtual séance, headed by a clairvoyant named Seylan (Seylan Baxter). It is one of the choice activities recommended by Haley (Haley Bishop), who has undergone one recently and is fascinated by the possibilities of the spirit world. The others, on the other hand, are along more out of passive support for routine rather than plausible belief – including Jemma (Jemma Moore), who wisecracks and distracts with all the perfunctory behaviors of a movie skeptic. Unfortunately for them, one of the unspoken rules of conducting such a ritual, at least among serious spectators, is capturing the buy-in of all those who are involved; if one among them does not conduct themselves with integrity or honesty, they risk opening a door towards something darker on the other side. That means trouble is afoot when Jemma inadvertently attempts to create excitement in an otherwise dreary exchange by inventing a fake spirit to talk to, all while the others watch on faithfully. When she reveals it is all just an elaborate joke, the damage has been done; the spirits are angered by her deception and a vengeful force has found its way into their séance, where it will haunt, mystify, confuse and eventually enact violence on each of them as they remain huddled around their webcams.

You surmise much of this via verbal exchanges throughout the brief 56-minute running time, when characters are talking over each other while their attention is split between the virtual meeting windows and routines still going on at home. No one stops to explain or clarify, a reflection of the displacement the movie wants to make from the people on screen and the notion that they are subjects of a horror film. When we first meet them, there is a sense their camaraderie is a long-standing ritual, and the meeting functions like the latest act in a long series of get-togethers marking the past. Lesser horror films might be too cognizant of viewers listening in, and their words would over-emphasize the framework. But Savage, who is a relative novice to this field, has studied the better examples of the genre and extracted the most apropos devices. It is not enough for the movie to feel like the embodiment of a single moment in time; those on the screen have to hold themselves as if it is all just happenstance, a reactionary measure of a behavior that is realized and accepted in their heads. This means they are also privy to private thoughts that suggest more going on in the periphery, especially during the more climactic exchanges. Observe, for instance, how Caroline (Caroline Ward) seems to whisper consoling remarks to herself when she goes to investigate a strange noise in the attic, taking along her laptop so that all can witness what she might find. Does it matter, really, that the audience cannot entirely make out the train of thought? Of course not. These are details that add a sense of dynamic to an otherwise conventional exercise of horror tropes.

The movie’s suspenseful push does not disappoint. In a final act that is wall-to-wall with supernatural encounters, we watch on excitedly as cameras go dead, internet feeds briefly flicker and obscure nearby shadows, images manifest and others go missing as the certainty of the predicament becomes obvious. A chair one of the victims is sitting on flings itself backward. Doors swing open. Strange noises lead to the discovery of other horrors – missing loved ones, sudden loss of electricity, and bloody ambushes. When the fiancée of Radina (Radina Drandova) goes missing, her frantic search through cellphone records overlaps a terror brewing in another camera lens: Caroline’s video feed changes to a loop of old footage and is then interrupted by the sight of the girl’s head being smashed against the laptop screen. And if you think that Radina’s own problems are dropped, think again: after the others realize that Caroline might have been killed, the body of her missing boyfriend falls at her feat after apparently being held up by an invisible force near the ceiling.

If you are to blink or sway your attention for any duration in the last 15 minutes of the film, you are likely to miss something critical. The final act is wall-to-wall with complexity. It never lets up on reveals or jump scares. How did Savage stage all this so effectively, and from a safe social distance? The wonder of the execution becomes almost as fascinating as the nature of the vengeful spirit terrorizing his victims. Likewise, the girls on screen – also new to this field – are competent vessels for the horror he inflicts. They react as if their impulses are dictated by an uncertainty that rises from the atmosphere of the cultural times. Are they right to be dismissive at first, especially given everything going on around them in the world? Can we blame them for laughing nervously when the mad sweep of Covid-19 has robbed everyone of their most dependable security? Here is a smart little scarefest that does more than manage an enjoyable ride into hell: it argues the destination is destined to get worse if we continue to ignore the most obvious warning signs.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (UK); 2020; Not Rated; Running Time: 56 Minutes

Haley Bishop: Haley
Jemma Moore: Jemma
Emma Louise Webb: Emma
Radina Drandova: Radina
Caroline Ward: Caroline
Seylan Baxter: Seylan

Produced by Douglas Cox, Craig Engler, Emily Gotto, Rob Savage, Jed Shepherd and Samuel Zimmerman; Directed by Rob Savage; Written by Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd

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