Host (2020): A Review and Explanation of Shudder’s New Zoom Flick
**This article was written during the COVID-19 pandemic when we were all stuck indoors going mad**
With movie productions shut down and theatres struggling to stay open, finding things to watch is a problem that I never thought I would face in my lifetime. But it’s in times like these that our true saviours, the streaming services, reveal themselves and save the long boring lockdown days with cheaply produced tosh to while away the hours while resisting the urge to clean… or watch Pornhub.
Okay, the first paragraph is a somewhat tongue in cheek (Xhamster’s better than Pornhub) description of the current COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s affecting our lives. And while I by no means mean to cheapen the crisis, I really miss my local theatre. I need something to watch. Anything. Even another Kissing Booth. Step forward Shudder.
Now you may feel that my opening paragraph highlights a total disdain for the quality of offerings found on services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney +, and the aforementioned Shudder. But in truth, each have their good points (Stranger Things and the Mandalorian amongst many others) and bad (the Kissing Booth films should be burned in a fiery hell). And with Shudder stepping into a horror themed niche with productions like The Dead Lands and the excellent Creepshow reboot, the question is: is the service worth forking out a few dollars each month to subscribe to or should you give it a wide berth?
The answer may well lie in Rob Savage’s creepy and innovative film Host made in 12 short weeks during lockdown for what is in regular movie making terms a pittance. We’ll discuss whether the film is any good later in the article but first let’s have a look at the context that gave rise to the movie.
How the times are changing
Host started out as a prank video uploaded to YouTube by Savage at the beginning of lockdown that quickly went viral. With people stuck indoors, YouTube took on a new meaning for many and the cheap, schlocky scares of Savage’s short were exactly what many viewers needed.
Within a few weeks the video was watched millions of times and (unsurprisingly) the roving eyes of Hollywood began to cast their gaze at the young director. Perhaps realising that a quick cash in was on the cards, offers for a longer (although at 57 minutes Host is still short for a feature) version of the film rolled in. But with options for finding an audience slim, Savage turned to the streaming services to get his pet project made. Step forward Shudder (that’s two steps now — this service must be good).
We’ll talk a little about the plot in a second, but the timing of the movie is perfect and it plays perfectly on our fears of being trapped indoors with no way of getting away from the horrors that surround us. If you have kids you know exactly what I mean.
Host (2020) Plot
On paper, the plot of Host is standard horror movie fare and the gimmick of using video conferencing as a way to display the action is nothing new (the Unfriended films did this a few years ago with far less success and many of the found footage films employ similar techniques).
In short, the story follows a real time Zoom call between six friends who get together weekly during the early days of lockdown to shoot the shit.
Each week one of six chooses an activity for the group to participate in and we learn early on that it is the character called Haley turn to choose this week. But Haley is bored of the standard quizzes and games they have been subjecting each other to and arranges for a psychic Medium to conduct a séance with the group instead.
With the others either wary of the activity or unconvinced of the Medium’s legitimacy, things don’t quite go as planned and one of the girls, called Jemma, decides to sabotage the process by inventing a story about a small boy who hanged himself at her school. When the Medium attempts to bring forward the non-existent ghost of the boy a demonic presence is summoned instead appearing as the hanged child.
Things start to go wrong for the group and barely seen (at least at first) strange occurrences start to happen around them. As the demon becomes stronger and the group become more terrified, the film eschews the tradition of only glimpsing the horror (a hallmark of similar genre faves like Paranormal Activity) to descend into a bat shit crazy third act where the teens are brutally and horrifically mangled for all to see.
Host’s Ending Explained
Host is a film set in three parts. The first part, the séance, sets up the film and tells you everything you need to know about the characters and the story. The second part builds the tension in a Paranormal Activity, found footage style with strange happenings increasing and barely glimpsed horrors lurking in the background. But it is in the final act that Host really lets loose and subverts our expectations of the genre to bring this short film to an intriguing and unexpected finale.
But let’s back track a little so we can really understand what happens at the end of the film. We know that Jemma’s story about the boy is the catalyst that brings forth the demonic presence into the characters Zoom shaped world. But (as alluded to by director Savage in post-release interviews) Jemma couldn’t have accomplished this alone. The demon is actually something called a Tulpa: a presence summoned when a group of people imagine the same entity at the same time. Jemma’s story is so convincing to the others that they can’t help but manifest images of the boy (who she names Jack). This gives the demon an in, and even though the child never existed, it is all the malevolent ghost needs to force itself into the human realm.
At the beginning of the séance the group are warned not to lie but Jemma chooses to do so anyway and in a similar vein to the choice the characters are tempted into making in Cabin in the Woods, the group unwittingly unleash the horror on themselves.
Initially the demon toys with the group, presenting itself as the boy and making them believe it is his ghost. It uses the image of Jack as a way to play with the group allowing it to grow stronger. But as the group becomes increasingly disturbed and the demon feeds off their fear, the Jack mask drops, and we get a true glimpse of the evil dwelling behind. When Teddy’s girlfriend and Redina’s husband die at the hands of demon Jack, the realisation of what’s happening hits home and the claustrophobia of the characters’ surroundings becomes palpable.
Towards the end of the film a man called Teddy, who we’d seen earlier, unwittingly joins the meeting and meets the same fate as the other characters. It is in Teddy’s appearance that the true secrets of Host hit home. We’d met Teddy during the early scenes of the movie when he’d shown the girls a creepy music box that he said he had found earlier that day after being chased by a ghost. This leaves the viewer questioning if the demon was ever really summoned by the group at all or whether it was waiting there with them all the time.
As with all good films, your interpretation of the film’s ending is left to you. You can believe that the group brought forth the demon if you want. Or you can assume that the ‘ghost’ was always with them waiting for the right moment, which the séance presented. The choice is yours.
So, is the film actually any good?
I hate Zoom. There I’ve said it. I’ve sat in many ‘video meetings’ this past year and I can honestly say I’d rather have somebody pour boiling water over my genitals than sit through another meeting with Debbie and her crew from HR. The arbitrary smiling and nodding as a person you barely know (or like) regales ‘the group’ with stories of how wonderful they are is torture. This is probably why Host really struck a chord with me. And while the sweaty palms and tense shoulders were perhaps not for the reasons the film’s makers expected, the idea of watching a group of teens harassed by ghosts over video conferencing was enough to bring me to the edge of my seat.
The film, commissioned by Shudder during the early days of the pandemic, could easily have been a knocked together cash in playing on our own fears of being locked down with the COVID-19 virus raging around us. But Host is no cheap cash in (we’ll wait to see if the Michael Bay produced Songbird falls into this trap) and it’s amazing to see what Savage has created with a few dollars, a couple of webcams, and a decent script.
It’s microbudget is obvious when you think about the nature of the film, but the experience doesn’t feel or look like it was filmed in a hurry for little money. The cast are generally great (although things do sometimes feel more than a little wooden) and the final third of the film is genuinely surprising and shocking in equal measures.
After watching Host on Shudder alone (we were in lockdown after all) I can genuinely say that it is a great little film and provided a much needed scratch to an itch that had built up over quarantine. And while my opinion of the film may be clouded with the desperation of being unable to head to my local multiplex, it was definitely an hour well spent. I recommend you fire up Shudder and do the same yourself… at least until we can get back to the cinema and get our blockbuster fix back on.