I want to talk about a movie which, as I write, deservedly holds a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Host, released on July 30th, might be the most topical film I’ve seen. It takes place on the Zoom video app and under the UK COVID-19 lockdown (which may or may not still be in effect… no-one here has a clue, especially the ‘government’, poor lambs). Don’t confuse it with the Bong Joon Ho movie from 2006, or the Stephanie Meyer one from 2013. It’s just ‘Host’, there’s no definite article. Like Idles. Listen to more Idles. Anyway… it’s less than an hour-long, it’s streaming now and it’s bloody brilliant.
The film opens with a young woman removing tape (or maybe a Post-It note) from her webcam. This establishes so much about her character immediately. Maybe she has worked in cybersecurity, maybe she’s just heard about “Ratting” whereby cameras can be hijacked with relative ease. However, under lockdown when we’ve all become so reliant on webcams, she’s being more cautious than many of us. Is she a worrier? Has she previously been exploited? Light touches like this reveal the care and craft of the filmmakers.
This care is particularly evident in these characterisation beats. We see a character outside. Are they breaking lockdown rules? Another admits to doing so, and your view of them may change according to your feelings on this. I don’t want to labour the point or reveal the motivations of other characters, but considering this is a fifty-six-minute-long film made on Zoom, the establishment of these personalities is superb. The writers, Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd, understand the importance of caring for, or at least empathising with, the characters in a horror. When things go bad, you’re invested.
It’s funny as well. The natural chemistry and camaraderie between these people suggest that they’re friends in real life. Either way, the acting is top-notch, and they should be applauded. I never felt like I was watching actors. There’s one gag in particular that another review, unfortunately, spoiled. A shame because it’s a genuine belly laugh and just the kind of thing a bunch of British mates would spontaneously come out with. And the film is very British. The reflexive piss-taking is as British as invading other countries then moaning about foreigners. We know people like these characters, we went to Uni with them, we get drunk with them in beer gardens, we get pissed-off with them when they’re selfish or insensitive. That’s not to say it’s parochial or inaccessible to people outside this weird island. You might just get an insight into your Brit buddies. What with the excellent Ghost Stories from 2017, last year’s hilarious Irish possession comedy Extra Ordinary and of course 2011’s harrowing Kill List, maybe these islands are entering a horror renaissance. I do hope so. Host director Rob Savage and his team are a new force to be reckoned with.
The Zoom thing isn’t a gimmick either. There’s an entirely valid reason for them all to use it and the concept and execution are superb, right down to the closing credits. The effectiveness of the movie may be married to its topicality, so perhaps to get the most from it you should watch it sooner rather than later.
This little movie succeeds beautifully in everything it sets out to do. That means, inevitably, we must talk about horror. I’m always reluctant here… it’s so subjective, so personal. I believe the two hardest things in entertainment are making an audience scared or making them laugh. Any horror review should start with a disclaimer that you may not be as scared as the reviewer was. But a horror film it is, so does it work?
Horror should horrify, terrorise, disturb. It should creep under your skin and paralyze you in the middle of the night straining to hear a sound echoing from your nightmares. If you’ve read my blogs, you know that’s what I want from horror. True horror isn’t a gore-fest, it isn’t ‘torture-porn’. That might successfully horrify, but it’s not going to shock you awake. That is horror, the demon or ghost that follows you out of the cinema and lingers… swaying unnaturally next to your sleeping form like Katie in Paranormal Activity. It’s my friend back in 1999 whose immediate reaction to The Blair Witch Project was ‘that wasn’t so bad’, only to call a few hours later saying, ‘Yeah, it just sank in. Can I come round dude? I’m kind of freaked out…’
So, where does Host sit by that measure? It got my Wife more than me. Initially. She went outside after it finished and admitted that the sounds in our garden were making her jump because of ‘that bloody film’. This is a woman who fears nothing. A half-ton-horse charging her at forty-miles per hour barely makes her shrug. So, ‘Ho, ho, ho’, I chortled, mocking this sudden bout of heebie-jeebies. ‘Aah,’ I condescended, ‘that’s so sweet’, gloating in this brief sensation of manly courage.
Cue an entirely deserved comeuppance at three o’clock the next morning when I woke up in a cold sweat and completely failed to sleep for the remainder of the night.
There are clichés in the scares, there are slammed doors and moving objects. But those clichés must be there in a film like this, not least to lull you into a false sense of knowing what to expect. This is a thoroughly modern, smart, incisive film which will find you, creep up on you and shake you.
Enjoy the fear.
Host is available on the Shudder channel on Amazon Prime. There is a free trial for the channel, which also has a great four-hour-long documentary on Eighties horror if you’re as much of a nerd as me.
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