Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We’re highlighting some of the best movies of 2020 so far that we didn’t review.
One of the first viral tweets of the pandemic—and one of the most reviled—reminded us (with the air of a teacher’s pet) that “when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” Drunk on a cocktail of cabin fever and crippling anxiety, many have, of course, struggled to create in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime lockdown. But not Rob Savage. Though the writer-director hasn’t made King Lear, he has fed a public craving for scares—for big, silly emotions to distract us from our big, existential fears. First, he went viral himself by pulling a terrifying Zoom prank on his pals. Spurred by internet interest, Savage then went on to make one of the most surprisingly satisfying horror films of the year. Naturally, it unfolds entirely on Zoom.
As Savage detailed in an interview with Rolling Stone, Host began with a 17-page outline that was elaborated upon and reworked throughout its chronological filming process. The premise is simple: Six friends invite a medium into their Zoom chat to conduct a seance, which takes a dark turn when one of the girls conjures up a fake story about a dead friend. Dark forces are unleashed, and the creepy noises that begin to echo through the homes of each participant serve as harbingers of the terror to come.
Host is a clear descendent of the desktop horror genre popularized by Unfriended and its sequel, but its ghost is not in the machine. The film owes more to the Paranormal Activity franchise—especially its first entry—in its employment of a lo-fi aesthetic, impressive practical effects, and glimpses of peripheral danger captured by a single, unblinking camera. And much like the first Paranormal Activity, Host doesn’t busy itself with any kind of arduous mythology; its brisk 57 minutes are as rich with eerie suggestion as they are with jump scares.
Savage finds novel ways to mine horror (and humor) from custom Zoom backgrounds and the glitches that routinely plague group chats—not to mention the 40-minute time limit that applies to free accounts. His film works not despite but because of its presentation. The greatest criticism we can lodge at either the found footage or desktop genres is the “why” of it all; for as clever as the John Cho-starring Searching was, for example, it ultimately didn’t need to be told through webcams and digital video. Host does. It’s all about the isolation of lockdown and the terror of realizing your home is no longer a safe haven. Our devices, meanwhile, become our only portal into the lives of our companions, and that simultaneous sense of intimacy and distance is never so pronounced as it is when the person on the other end is in trouble.
Creators have spent the pandemic fretting over the future of film and TV and live theater, as well they should. In a recent A.V. Club interview, the creators of an interactive Instagram horror narrative noted, correctly, that many artists are “fighting the digital form, trying to copy and paste theater performances into a space that wasn’t built for those performances.” Host is proof that technology can be shaped to provide something fresher than a livestream. We’re already online all day. Why not make art out of it?
Availability: Host is now streaming on Shudder.