HOST: the next step in found footage horror

Found footage is my favourite genre of horror. Truth be told, horror isn’t my go to genre generally when it comes to film, and I appreciate purists may baulk at a movie like Host, but it’s catnip to me.

Host appears to have caught the imagination of the huddled masses this summer, starved as they are of new content for the most part thanks to the Covid-19 enforced lockdown. It has been trending across social media for a few weeks. It is in pride of place on horror streaming service Shudder. It even was featured in a segment for The Economist, appearing on its daily podcast The Intelligence (which I heartily recommend for a current affairs snapshot), which is where I first heard about it strangely. Not in the pages of Fangoria or even something as highbrow as Sight & Sound, but rather a publication dedicated to examining society through the lens of economics. It could appear a bizarre fit but it perhaps suggests that projects such as Host, and the found footage lineage they are part of, can often serve as a financial boon to the horror genre, and can break out into the mainstream, as it appears Host has done.

What Host certainly does, even if in a relatively minor way, is continue the tradition of found footage not just in the world of lockdown but also within an advancing age of interactive technology used for day to day communication.

The premise of Host, produced and directed by Rob Savage, is breathtakingly simple, in the manner the most successful found footage examples tend to be.

Set during the lockdown period, six friends in different parts of the world (mostly the U.K.) decide to hire a medium in order to conduct a seance via Zoom. One of them, Haley, wants to take it seriously. One, Caroline, is terrified. Another, Jemma, thinks it’s all a bit of a lark. Ultimately, as you might expect, things very swiftly go wrong, things subsequently go bump in the night, and the six friends find themselves in mortal danger.

From a narrative perspective, it’s not revolutionary. Savage’s film, indeed, is intentionally in line with a whole range of horror tropes and historical reference points. It wears the debt it holds to The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, probably the two kingpins in terms of how they framed and then re-framed found footage horror via respective technologies, on its sleeve, but Host is the first film to truly convey the intersection not just between horror and computer-based visual communication, but also the Covid-era period of enforced confinement.

Savage is keen to point out, however, that Host is not a film about the pandemic, and in this he’s entirely correct:

We were very clear about our intentions. Host isn’t a pandemic movie. Host is a lockdown thriller, very much about the specifics of being isolated, of being virtually together, but actually in a state of exposed isolation. When push comes to shove, you’re on your own and your friends can only witness what’s happening to you. That was the fear we wanted to tap into. I think anything that leans too much into being specifically about the pandemic had a bad taste in our mouths and we didn’t want to go that route. I don’t think people are going to really want to see pandemic movies in a post-pandemic world. Everyone’s sick of it already.

In reality, Host could be set at any point utilising technology such as Zoom, which certainly isn’t a creation of the pandemic period. People have been using software such as this, including Skype, for years to communicate in such a manner. Savage also acknowledges the debt his film owes to Unfriended and it’s sequel Dark Web, as well as The Den which came out at around the same time, all of which exploited emergent online technology in such a way.

The difference is that Host’s setting adds to the sense of claustrophobic paranoia Savage’s characters are surrounded by. They may barely mention the pandemic or the virus, and nod to the fact they are locked down, but the sense of them all being trapped within their confines is palpable. We only see a mask, and the outside world, at a very specific point in the story. Otherwise we are looking at six different screens for the most part, switching between Zoom windows, and are drawn into their growing realisation that they have unleashed an evil coming for each and every one of them.

Savage working with regular collaborators, many of whom are friends, playing versions of themselves who due to the lockdown filmed their scenes inside their own houses, adds to the Blair Witch-esque mystique. There is a casual reality to what these mostly women experience that chills in a manner the structured scares of the Unfriended movies, as decent a horror film as they both were, failed to do.

In this sense, Host feels like the natural inheritor to the found footage legacy from the first Paranormal Activity, which in turn was handed the baton from the first Blair Witch. We may have seen a brace of sequels across a range of franchises but these pictures remain the seminal examples of how to use technology to a potent, terrifying effect – be it the haunting amateur lens in the Burkitsville woods or the static, infra-red nightmare fuel of Katie Featherstone being pulled from her bed in the dead of night.

Those films tapped into primal fears – the scary woods at night, the poltergeist stalking your home. Host is as ragged around the edges as those films and all the better for it in how it uses key precepts we have grown used to during lockdown for Zoom communication – the 40 minute time limit, the funny background images, the weird Snapchat filters – as a way of inflicting genuine jump scares and unerring moments. The most effective is a frightening visage of a disembodied filter mask hovering in mid-air that is as creepy a visual as you will see on screen this or any other year.

Whether Host goes on to trigger a litany of sequels, which it might well will, or serves as the first salvo in found footage pandemic horror, it deserves to take its place in the annals of if not quite a pioneer for the sub-genre, then the next step toward that intersection of scares and technology. You should already be thinking twice about a seance anyway, but Host will certainly remind you that even Zoom won’t keep you safe from the terror of the unknown.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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