Face filters, fake facts and found footage:
The online horror of
Host was the horror phenomenon of 2020, not least because it reflected our own status quo. Here are Andy Roberts’ thoughts on the brilliant British horror…
The year 2020 has certainly gone in a direction even the most nihilistic cynic couldn’t have predicted.
A mysterious new virus has flooded most of the civilised world and the entire globe is bearing the brunt of pervasive social distancing, lockdown restrictions, mass infections and deaths. There’s rarely, if ever, been a more uncertain time and everyone is dealing with the crisis and coping in a variety of ways; taking up hobbies, starting new businesses, or in the case of one particular British project, making a horror movie.
Debuting on the VOD service Shudder at the end of July this year, horror fans were thrilled to discover a new British found footage film entitled HOST (2020, Rob Savage). Both produced and set during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the plot follows a small group of friends who conduct a seance over a Zoom call only to trigger terrifying phenomena that threaten their very lives. For some horror fans, the found footage genre is nothing particularly unique.
From humble origins in the mondo genre of the 60s and some notably nasty precursors in Italian shockers like 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980), found footage only really hit its stride with The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999). Commonly accepted as the progenitor of the subgenre, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s huge indie hit featured shaky handheld shots, naturalistic dialogue, unsettling compositions and an unpredictable catalogue of scares. It wasn’t until 2007’s Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli), however, that the genre really went mainstream and was followed by a plethora of low-budget chillers, almost all viewed through the shaky camera lens of the protagonist(s).
Following in the same footsteps as 2014’s Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014), HOST takes place entirely on a computer screen and via a Zoom call. Utilised by our main characters, the format of Zoom is one that would be all too familiar with us at the moment, being relegated to strictly online or telephone communications due to social distancing. To this end, there’s a great deal of verisimilitude with HOST from the very get-go, especially when watching it on a laptop yourself. Not only is there the overwhelming familiarity with the trusty laptop screen and webcam, but the fact that the film is set within the current coronavirus pandemic with specific references to the lockdown adds a touch of realism that is rarely achieved in horror films today.
We’re introduced to our first character Haley in an almost stereotypical instance of voyeuristic undressing via a mirror that we would commonly expect in horror, but it tastefully cuts it short due to our first creepy knocking in the film. These false set-ups are at least a welcome sign that we are about to tuck into a good old-fashioned horror movie. The subsequent introduction of Jemma also feels recognisable, with a conversation occurring on the jaggedy format of a mobile phone as she walks, only to then encounter high-pitched audio interference when connecting through the computer which we’ve all had happen in various forms. Even those moments of ‘can I just send a quick email?’ and the ensuing momentary silence that follows are all incredibly relatable to our own technological experiences.
The other characters Emma, Radina and Caroline are quickly introduced afterwards and again, we’re hit with an overwhelming sense of familiarity; not only are there the usual colloquial quips of ‘I love your hair’ and ‘how are we?’, but even with the blissful facial expressions and comfy body language, there’s a real tenderness between the girls established effortlessly that endears you right off the bat. You feel personally involved in their shenanigans, such as their mutual dislike and bitchiness about Jinny, Teddy’s girlfriend. The effect is so powerful that when Teddy and Jinny come suddenly into the call, your eyes widen and your mouth gasps in surprise in tandem with Jemma, almost as though you too are responsible for the trash talk.
Sadly for Jinny, this also makes her feel instantly dislikable, especially when she mauls Teddy on camera and spoils the beginning of the seance. Though he is introduced last and is fairly absent for a good portion of the film, Teddy obviously sticks out a little as one of the few male characters in a predominantly female cast. There’s some hint that Caroline is sort of in love with him, but it’s played down in a very naturalistic way and rightly so. Still, his presence is clearly enjoyed by the girls so we also naturally gravitate towards his cheeky persona and self-proclaimed ‘twat knot’. The camaraderie is pretty infectious, so much so that when Haley and Jemma begin to clash and as the group becomes steadily more terrified over the course of the film’s runtime, it’s hard not to feel some of that transference of their raw emotion come through.
This sense of relatability however comes from the references to COVID-19: there’s a specific reference to this during the early stages of the film: ‘Oh, you’ve got a cough! Oh, you can’t cough anymore!’ Caroline’s father is also mentioned as being ignorant of the lockdown rules; a nod toward the real world misunderstanding, miscommunication and, at times, blind ignorance between generations and different political groups. Certainly not everyone in the UK is taking the pandemic seriously and there’s a real scepticism amongst a growing proportion of the public about the real dangers of the virus. Not only that, there’s the tricky issue of relationships becoming strained under lockdown conditions, with any previously easily swerved problems now completely unavoidable. This is typified by Radina’s apparent difficulties with her boyfriend, Alan. There’s also a brief mention of the rule, ‘No PornHub in the dining room,’ referencing the increase in porn usage under lockdown conditions (PornHub even offered their Premium services free in certain territories). There’s real attention to detail and the country-wide predicament we’re all facing clears our pathway towards identifying with characters stuck in a situation all too familiar.
Even some of the communication styles and character choices provide insight into some aspects of the British experience of the pandemic. Many have indulged in drinking games to liven up social gatherings (memories of our own younger days prevail!). It’s difficult not to laugh along at the cast’s clumsily attempts to disguise their necking of spirits every time Seylan utters the term, ‘astral plane’. The sudden false scare when Seylan’s front doorbell rings lead to another British colloquialism; playful class mockery, with the characters suggesting facetiously that she is expecting an Ocado, one of the more expensive grocery shops in the UK. Poking fun at class is a pervasive branch of British humour, demonstrated again later with the girls’ ogling of Jinny’s home with its rustic aesthetic, large swimming pool and indoor bar.
Of course, once the seance begins to spiral out of control, the film changes tack and the frights come thick-and-fast. There’s a masterful blend of the jump scares and more subtle and infinitely creepier, blink-and-you-miss-it imagery. This is clearly a film for horror fans, made by horror fans. The (short) runtime also boasts several references to other horror tropes and franchises. The inclusion of facial filters, common in most apps and video conferencing programs now, is particularly relevant to the film. Not only are they used in a scare later, but they also make nostalgic visual references to other horrors, like the pig mask from Saw (James Wan, 2004) worn by Emma or Caroline duplicating footage of herself from earlier a la the twins from The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) and countless other ‘evil twin’ horrors.
The sequence in which Caroline investigates a noise in her loft feels like a call back to a similar moment in Paranormal Activity, while her demise is reminiscent of one in popular ‘online horror’, Unfriended. Emma, meanwhile, has a frightening encounter in her living room – possibly the eeriest in the film – when her webcam registers a presence that triggers its facial filter, a cherubic theatrical mask very reminiscent of the killer’s mask in proto-slasher, Alice Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1976). In another moment, ripped straight from the hit video game and YouTube sensation Five Nights at Freddy’s, Teddy’s torch explodes, leaving him in complete darkness while the haunting melody of his trinket box plays. Finally, the unlucky Emma’s tear-stricken eyes, which have witnessed the horror unfold is hauntingly close to the weeping Heather Donahue in the aforementioned The Blair Witch Project.
Effectively conveying a sense of dread and liberally frightening us with well-crafted scares, you’d be forgiven for thinking that HOST has little to say on a deeper level. Yet, even in this seemingly clear-cut depiction of a modern ghost tale, HOST has surprising depth. Seylan mentions that ‘over Zoom’, we’re more vulnerable than we would usually be. Though she clearly intimates this means less protection against spirits, this is also a nod toward online communication in general which is frequently purported to adversely impact our mental health. Contrary to logic, it seems the more we communicate online, the more we risk social isolation over time. Online abuse also often pushes boundaries, becoming far more aggressive remotely than in person.
We live in an age where facts are frequently branded as ‘fake news’ and falsehoods are framed as truths, depending on the user and their intentions. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that online availability has deepened discourse, yet enlarged social divides and forced a widespread polarisation on many economical, ethical, political and societal issues and challenges. Seylan’s explanation of the spirit as a ‘mask’ for anyone to wear and inhabit also draw parallels to the digital slander and sensationalised minutia on the internet. Anyone can repurpose a piece of misleading information, meme, image or video online and share it with an intention to cause distress, to elicit joy or pain. The demonic spirit is almost a metaphor for something innocent which may be corrupted online and ‘go viral’ causing mayhem on the internet. Only in this instance, there are immediate and frightening consequences rather than the sometimes astronomical-scale butterfly effect that occurs in reality over a longer period.
HOST truly is a horror film of and for our time. While it may have aged somewhat now the world is freed from the clutches of Covid-19, Rob Savage’s web-based supernatural shocker will always remind us of this enormously uncertain time period in our history. When we all had to remain indoors; when people fought in supermarket aisles over the last pack of toilet roll; when we wore face masks for our protection. And when a seemingly harmless fib spelt certain doom for the participants of a Zoom call.