A Demon Writes:
James Swanton on the Making of Host
Created during a nationwide lockdown in 2020, Host captured the zeitgeist to become one of the most popular and discussed horror films of the year. With its impending release on Blu-ray and DVD (amid another lockdown), James Swanton writes exclusively for Horrified on the creation of his demonic screen persona and his cinematic influences...
It began with an email, received and read at half-eleven, one night in May.
‘I’ve been commissioned to shoot a found footage horror movie set on Zoom to be shot during lockdown and I wanted to contact you early to see if there’s any way we could find a way to get you to do some monster action for it…’
One does not easily say no to Rob Savage. Especially not as an out-of-work actor during a national lockdown. I’d had four different filming projects put on hold, all of them horrific: the world has, thus, been denied my behatted Victorian spectre, my bedraggled old hag, my apocalyptic beastie, and my swiftly-decapitated coach driver. I’d since been whiling away the weeks as best I could. By day, I was writing about Christopher Lee for my long-in-progress book on horror acting; by night, I was bingeing on YouTube videos of thrill-seekers breaking into abandoned theme parks. Horror films and found footage: it seemed the two were now converging.
Within minutes, I emailed back. The next day, Rob called me up – not with occult liturgy and black candles – but, much more fittingly, with Zoom. And in under three months, Host (2020) was released.
The ensuing media storm came as a complete surprise, touching everyone involved in ways, which were disarmingly direct. I’ve remained on the fringes, as I do in the film, but even so I’ve been turned into a teddy, a VHS cover, and into an ultraviolet-hued pastel portrait – a copy of which the artist, Chantal Laura Handley, was generous enough to post me all the way from Australia. The steady stream of online reaction videos has granted me a still-unfolding testament of visiting people’s homes worldwide, despite the notable restrictions of time, space, and pandemic. Meanwhile, the combination of mainstream coverage and, more importantly, online back-and-forth between filmmakers and fans has surely made Host one of the best-documented horror films in history.
Overseeing all this interest certainly kept me going through a monumentally discouraging year, though it’s felt utterly disconnected from my usual activities. It’s surely a cosmic joke that I should have been involved, even tangentially, in anything that hit the zeitgeist like Host. I’m the most unfashionable actor imaginable. My great theatrical inspirations are those haunted Victorians Charles Dickens and Sir Henry Irving; only marginally less ancient, the first films to get me hooked on horror were silent. What right have I to be the harrowing face in a film at the cutting-edge of modern horror? Why have hundreds of thousands of modern-day people gazed on my gruesome features, among them Stephen King? This last point is perhaps the loopiest of all. King hardly qualifies as a real person; quite simply, he is horror – but modern horror. Yes – classic modern horror, legendary modern horror – but modern nonetheless.
Perhaps, it’s been effective precisely because I am a throwback to earlier traditions. But perhaps it could have been anybody’s face. I’m aware (and amused) at the irony of appearing so very little in the actual film. My screen-time can’t amount to more than five seconds. This is in stark contrast to how I’ve spent most of my career as an actor: mainly in theatre, mainly in one-man plays, and mainly building in some kind of endurance test. To that end, I’ve given marathon performances of all five of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Books. I’ve devoted years to the unsustainably violent Sikes & Nancy, acting which killed Dickens, and routinely damaged Swanton. And – just converging with cinema now – I created the feature film of my play Frankenstein’s Creature in one nerve-shredding sustained take. All of these ordeals have been self-inflicted. I know full well that I’m a hard worker. The great revelation is that most of the hard work goes into clawing your way into these undreamed-of positions where you’re suddenly called on to do far less work. As Elaine Stritch said, quoting the world-weary prostitute: ‘It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.’ It’s as well that I look back on the stairs that led me to Host.
Demons have clung to me in my acting life. I blame it on a combination of personal interest and my enormous face. A few years ago, I played an unholy trinity of demonic beings in such close proximity – roughly ten months – for which I can immodestly boast I won the York Culture Award: Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Creature and Lucifer. All three had their memorable moments. The Dracula was a site-specific production that kept the master vampire as a shadowy Woman-in-Black-like presence until the last ten minutes. It was gratifying to finally part a curtain and walk forward – with the utmost simplicity, to the sight of teenage girls on the front row frenziedly shitting themselves! As Frankenstein’s Creature (UK, Sam Ashurst, 2018), I weathered the aforementioned thrilling terror of shooting a one-man film in a single ninety-minute take: a conceit that made the assignment both bravura theatre and another kind of found footage. Embellishing the ordeal was the physical stress of acting with very little clothing as the thermometer flickered just above zero – an atmosphere in harmony, at least, with the Creature’s self-exile in the Arctic wastes. And as Lucifer in the York Mystery Plays, I was granted what I instantly sensed to be a dangerous amount of power for any actor. I proved my point when I wound up leading hundreds of audience members in a rousing improvised chant of ‘CRUCIFY JESUS!’ Some were reluctant – ‘Oh, come on,’ I told them, ‘you’re all going to Hell anyway,’ – but I was pleased to see the clergy join in. All three of these characters are devils, devoid of souls – except perhaps Frankenstein’s Creature, who nonetheless remains (as Kim Newman pointed out in his review) the ‘fiend’ and the ‘demon’ in Mary Shelley’s novel.
Pleasingly enough, my last live performances in 2020, pre-pandemic, were also inflected with devilry. In January, I’d briefly revived my one-man play Irving Undead, in which Henry Irving’s recreation of his Mephistopheles in Faust constitutes the heart of the evening. And then in March, I’d given a dramatic reading of Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book from the candlelit confines of the York Ghost Merchants. M.R. James’ demon – likened to ‘one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form’ – persists as my literary standard for devilry. I now raise my spirits with the Merchants online, relating ghost stories via live streams. Their medium is Instagram rather than Zoom, but the synchronicity is undeniable.
Venturing further back, I’d portrayed yet another demon in the short film Salt (UK, 2017) – my first working experience with director Rob Savage, along with Host’s co-writer Jed Shepherd and producer Douglas Cox. I owe the experience to Dan Martin, the sagacious make-up genius who’s become no less than my Jack Pierce. The experience was as weird as these shoots always are. I was painted up in a normal bedroom in a normal London street, looking down as people walked by and half hoping they’d look up. Dan and I had done our first job together, Double Date (UK, Benjamin Barfoot, 2017), in a studio next to a primary school: the impulse to traumatise the unwary (with our zombified Satanist) had been even stronger there. The filming, itself, meant getting a literal crash course in collapsing from stunt coordinator Nathaniel Marten – who has now saved me from bodily trauma on multiple films – as I repeatedly hurled myself towards a closing door, splay-taloned, and onto a concealed mat. No easy task when your head’s imprisoned in a giant goat’s skull. The shoot culminated with crouching crook-legged on a car bonnet in the early hours, a hose pipe trained on me to simulate rain; the most reliable throughline in any of these jobs is that it’s impossible to escape them without freezing half to death.
Rob’s direction proved to be everything that’s needed for a monster actor: if there’s time and opportunity, he’ll direct you down to the palpitations of your little finger. Micro-directing is crippling in theatre, but indispensable when playing a monster on film. You’re so much at the mercy of the combination of elements – not only your heavy make-up and your own performance ideas, but camera placement, composition, lighting, timing, editing, sound effects, digital enhancements, colour grading, and overriding intention – that you need this strong outside vision to carry you through.
Shortly after Salt, I did a horror TV pilot for Rob where I was mainly a pair of horrible hands. On that occasion, he had little choice but to direct me down to my little fingers. By contrast, the nature of Host – conceived and created in lockdown – meant the unavoidable separation of actors and director. Unlike the more human cast members, I didn’t have Rob directing me remotely in real-time. Instead, we’d have a daytime meeting to thrash out some gruesomeness; I’d then gather my footage by night and email it over, before we reconvened for the next meeting. The majority of this process came before principal photography, with the result that I was (not inappropriately) disconnected from every other actor. To this day, I’ve never met any of the people I so brutally killed in Host. I can’t decide if that makes me a gentleman or a cad.
Past experiences transferred, then, but with changes in place. My more palpable devilry was newly tempered with the ghostly; less fire-and-brimstone demon, more ethereal spirit. In our first Zoom meeting (the first Zoom meeting I’d ever had, actually), Rob and I quickly seized on our mutual reverence for Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch (BBC, Lesley Manning, 1992). I always think of that line in The Legend of Hell House (UK, John Hough, 1973): if Hell House is the Mount Everest of haunted houses, then Ghostwatch is the Mount Everest of found-footage horror films (or, being British, perhaps Ben Nevis). Particularly helpful was Ghostwatch’s ‘ghosts in the machine’ scenario of a malignant presence infiltrating television cameras, television studios and even television’s human embodiment, Michael Parkinson. Host slightly updated this technological conceit by embracing the internet. I’ve also harboured a long-time fascination for ghosts barely glimpsed. Since childhood, I’ve been haunted by ghost photos and videos – the obvious fakes and the tantalising possibles – that show spirits at their subtlest. They do far less than materialise: they insinuate their way into the frame. Both Rob and I also love The Innocents (UK, Jack Clayton, 1961), in which Miss Jessel, across the lake, beautifully fits this remit – but then, so does Pipes in Ghostwatch, as he, lastingly, distorts your trust in bedroom curtains.
Establishing the demon’s look was fairly straightforward. Like a makeshift Lon Chaney, I devised myself a new face: an expressionistic melange of streaks and smears and smudges, in alternating lines of black and grey. This was founded on a technique I’d hatched when I’d been acting The Hunchback of Notre Dame at university; I’d then transferred the same principles to the original staging of Frankenstein’s Creature in 2015. I sent Rob the production shots, and a similar look was quickly settled on. These extraordinary images (the work of photographer Jack Sain) are a central reason I’ve become embroiled in modern horror: I emailed them to Dan Martin in 2016, and, in less than six months, we were working on a film together. In another strange twist, Dan was also at work on Host, but for once had nothing to do with my make-up. In fact, I only learned of his involvement just before the film was released.
Like many people, I was isolating at home with family, which meant I had an entire house to exploit as set dressing and put-upon family members to exploit as my camera crew. I’m sure I’ll be apologising to my technophobic Mum till the end of my days; as delighted as she might have been to see her name in the credits of an internationally-screened motion picture, she derived no joy from the fiddly particulars of the responsibility. My Mum’s had scant choice but to accept my monstrous nature from the outset. As I was being born, my Dad got to pacing back and forth, numbly repeating, ‘This is a nightmare… a nightmare…’ The nurse had a prophetic response: ‘You can call him Freddy.’
Being reliant on mobile phones in lieu of cameras was a constant frustration. Take after take would go wrong. Filming in semi-darkness meant focus issues by the score. To begin, the phone wouldn’t be pointing in the same direction as the torch beam; sort that out, and suddenly the torch would be shining on the wrong thing entirely; adjust again, and there’d be a finger blocking the lens. Once-reliable phone memories would become inexplicably clogged, no matter how many WhatsApp memes about toilet paper were deleted. And then, after enduring so much irritation, little by little, and often quite inexplicably, something astonishing – and horrifying – would start to emerge. That said, even the successful takes are devoid of fright when you hear them with their original soundtracks, wherein this fruity-voiced Yorkshireman bellows his terse instructions before jerking into shock-headed view. There’s another peculiar irony in being right back where I started, resulting in the piece of work I’ve been involved in that’s been seen the most. I’m still trying to make sense of that one.
Many demonic gags were left on the cutting-room floor – principally because editing them to fit within the wider narrative, whilst maintaining that unforgiving pace, was too great a challenge (editor Brenna Rangott, may I add, deserves an Oscar). There were a variety of unpleasant occurrences staged in a bathroom. Another set-up yielded a sliver of face and hand in a doorway. I became fixated on the image of the spirit being glimpsed briefly through the bars of a chair, a hand flickering out of sight as the torch-beam hits, a gleam of eye and tooth standing out against the dark. Only the climb up the stairs survives in the final cut; during the test stage, I’d chucked in a daylit take of my grimacing around a bannister and Rob had seized on the potential. In later weeks, I provided drawn-out static shots in which I shifted, at close range, into varied states of grotesque distortion, which became the basis for the spirit’s subsequent appearances. All of this ‘lost’ footage exerts a strange fascination – and I confess that some of the images unsettle even me. Perhaps they’ll turn up as a DVD easter egg in time. For now, they reside on my laptop.
I can’t claim to have done my subtlest acting in Host, given the brevity of my appearance. It’s, perhaps, a challenge more akin to modelling: cramming the utmost visual impact into the smallest space. You need to throw the big shapes, pull the big faces, to draw that instinctive animal revulsion from people. The results remind me of that inexplicably feral, old crone in the cellar in House on Haunted Hill (1959), the sort of low-tech jump-scare of which Host would be proud. The crone also has the Host spirit’s white eyes – the work of VFX necromancer Steve Bray – though I imagine that Sam Raimi’s ghouls in The Evil Dead (US, 1981) were the more direct source. Inevitably, I also think of Pazuzu’s face in The Exorcist (US, William Friedkin, 1973), who appears in shots so subliminally that even my screen-time seems an overexposure.
All the same, I can’t help wondering whether the spirit isn’t more deeply indebted to the silent horror films. My immersion in both horror and acting began when I saw Lon Chaney in that battered warhorse The Phantom of the Opera (US, Rupert Julian, 1925) at the age of eleven; I soon graduated to Max Schreck in Nosferatu (Germany, F W Murnau, 1922) and my life’s course was set. They’ve been unconscious influences, I’ll admit, but they’ve been turning over in my mind since Host’s release. In the spirit’s final lunge, there’s a certain crossover with that near-subjective shot of Lon Chaney’s Phantom surging towards the camera after his unmasking: the spirit begins a digital transformation into something skull-like, whilst Chaney’s practical techniques had fashioned the illusion of the skull beneath the skin. John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (US, John S Roberton, 1920) stands out as an even more vital reference. Barrymore’s Hyde is responsible for what I often consider the most frightening face on film, just after beating Jekyll’s future father-in-law to death (and, it’s implied, tasting the blood from his throat): a question of diabolic expression first, with make-up enhancements lingering somewhere behind. He wouldn’t be out of place on Host’s stairway to hell. When Hyde places his fingers over his own face, exalting in having transformed for the first time, it’s in a configuration that resembles the spirit’s pose under Teddy’s pool table. And Hyde gets uglier as the film progresses, just like the constantly decaying (or evolving) spirit.
In Nosferatu, Schreck’s Graf Orlok also becomes more hideous as his film progresses – and it’s German Expressionism that yields the most illuminating connections of all. My make-up drew on my personal experience, but that was at least partly shaped by Conrad Veidt’s highly painted faces as Death in Eerie Tales (Germany, Richard Oswald, 1919) and Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany, Robert Wiene, 1920). Like the Host spirit, Nosferatu’s most memorable moment occurs on a flight of stairs: they’re a liminal space, an unsafe in-between space, which is why they prove so consistently unnerving. As do doorways: something else that Nosferatu harnessed, and something that greatly benefits Host’s denouement.
Most crucially, German Expressionism rose up out of the confusion and despair of the Great War. A shared trauma on an international scale: we are currently weathering another one. The spirit in Host becomes a symbol for the threat of the virus, just as the rat-attracting Orlok had been emblematic of plague. You can dispute the spirit’s reality all you like. But once it fastens itself on you, it will not be stopped. We never discussed this in production. But – as in a properly chilling ghost photograph – I feel it’s insinuated.
It’s peculiar to have spoken at such length in this piece. I practically never get to speak on film. In my first film, I had one line – a one-word line at that – which the director decided to dub himself. I’ve since had great swathes of dialogue cut away from under me, either just before recording it or shortly afterwards. Only Frankenstein’s Creature has gone against the grain – violently so, in that it’s me and me, alone, divesting myself of garlands of complex text for ninety minutes. I’m hopeful it’ll get a wider audience in time (though a digital download, with commentaries, exists for the curious). None of this should be taken personally, of course. Rob and I had some early discussions on whether the Host spirit might speak, albeit in a near-indecipherable, alien fashion: the Ghostwatch influence again. Yet, silent horror was my entry gate, and perhaps a premonition of how these outsize monstrosities are best played. Many horror presences gather their strength from silence; one need look no further than Christopher Lee’s monolithic wordlessness throughout Hammer’s Dracula Prince of Darkness (UK, Terence Fisher, 1965). Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster had an unanswerably persuasive defence: ‘We know exactly who he is when he first appears. He is Count Dracula, king of the vampires. And vampires don’t chat. So, I didn’t write him any dialogue.’
As we’re on the subject, how does Host weather a comparison with The Curse of Frankenstein (UK, Terence Fisher, 1957), Hammer’s breakthrough horror film? Hammer was a staunchly middle-aged company in many respects but Jimmy Sangster was in his late twenties when he wrote (at lightning speed) The Curse of Frankenstein, and therefore of an age with Host’s co-creators Gemma Hurley, Jed Shepherd and Rob Savage. The Curse of Frankenstein was also a smash in the face of highbrow critical sniffiness regarding horror, which is now dispersing a bit, but persists to this day – rightly so, I think: make horror too respectable and it withers and dies. Hammer lured their audience into a false sense of security with their Gothic trappings; the Host team did the same with the seemingly unpromising frame of the feature-length Zoom call. Hammer offered technical innovation (a colour Gothic was a rare event in the 1950s), committed and credible acting, and no-holds-barred terror and brutality when the situation demanded. They also broke America – yet they achieved this through financing and distribution, without ever abandoning their British roots. Here’s looking at you, Host team.
The Curse of Frankenstein also introduced a new horror face in a heavily made-up Christopher Lee. New on the scar-tissued surface, but actually old, for Lee’s Creature is constructed on the visual and physical template of Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The ancient influences persist, whether we recognise them or not; the mighty line goes on. And in following Hammer’s success, Host is now bearing the torch for excellence in British horror.