Host: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Second Sight
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (29th January 2021).
The Film

Socially-distanced for the better part of 2020, six friends – Haley (Angel Has Fallen's Haley Bishop), Jemma (Doom: Annihilation's Jemma Moore), Radina (Radina Drandova), Emma (Emma Louise Webb), Caroline (Caroline Ward), and Ted (The Rebels' Edward Linard) – have been keeping in touch regularly with the video conferencing app Zoom. One evening, Haley hits upon the idea for something more novel than movies or board games: holding a séance over the internet. Medium Seylan (Cleek's Seylan Baxter) claims that that it is possible, although they will not be as protected as when the participants have physically joined hands but assures them that they can not only form a spiritual connection but also a means of severing the connection so long as they show respect for the dead… No sooner does Jemma plays a prank than Seylan's internet cuts out and the friends start to realize that the things going bump in the night have a malevolent intent and are not bound to any one location.

It was just a matter of time before someone made a lockdown horror film; however, the time it took to adjust to the new modes of living, working, and socializing at a distance as well as the uncertainty of the length of the lockdown – as well as the uncertainty about when another one may be ordered, as well as preoccupations about just how normal life will have to adapt in the aftermath – meant that it had to be conceived of and executed quickly while people were still living it (as opposed to the "after" period of trying to move on or the later more reflective "historical" period); and it has made a splash thanks to its topical nature and its distribution as a Shudder original on a video platform that encouraged a viewing environment similar to that of the characters (only coming to physical media six months after it became available for immediate on-demand viewing). Host – the closest thing in length to a feature thus far for short form horror director Rob Savage – takes its inspiration from a viral video prank (more on that below) and bears resemblance to, pays homage to, and is derivative of other films predating the pandemic; but it does so in a consistently smart manner, alternately playing on and subverting seasoned horror audience expectations.

The film it bears the most surface resemblance to is Unfriended (although one can find an antecedent farther back in the lesser seen webcam-set chiller The Collingswood Story which made an early splash with the online horror community, and only had a physical media release in the U.K.), although the characters are never so obnoxious or toxic and only once burst into the sort of shrill bickering that took up much of that film's running time. Another obvious model is the original paranormal "found footage" horror film Ghostwatch in which a television special featuring a live investigation of a haunting – inspired by the Enfield poltergeist which was also the subject of the overblown The Conjuring 2 and the television films The Enfield Haunting, as well as a loose inspiration for the low budget films Urban Ghost Story and When the Lights Went Out – becomes an inadvertent virtual séance that allows a malevolent entity to wreak havoc in far flung locations simultaneously. The stimulating concept that making up a fake ghost during a séance can create a "mask" that an uninvited entity (which may or may not be the ghost of a person or something demonic) may or may not have been inspired by the 1972 "Philip" parapsychology experiment – purportedly the inspiration for Hammer's lesser The Quiet Ones – and a bit involving ghostly footprints in flour recalls (but also possibly predates) Paranormal Activity, capturing ghosts with a Polaroid has figured into various paranormal investigations and film gags, while a jump scare in which a thrown sheet reveals a humanoid shape is effective (although not as fun as a sustained fright sequence in the even more DIY American horror film An American Ghost Story).
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The real-time structuring that lasts the approximate length of the restricted free version of the Zoom app means that the viewer is given little background on the characters – Jemma is a prankster, Radina may have regrets about moving in with her boyfriend Adam (Alan Emrys) just before lockdown, Caroline is spending lockdown with her father Patrick Ward, and none of the others seem to like Ted's girlfriend Jinny (stunt performer Jinny Lofthouse) with whose parents they are quarantining in the countryside – but their chemistry feels organic (more on that below), and the comfort level of the cast all filming separately was likely greatly aided by the "offscreen" participation of family, partners, and housemates as crew. From a technical standpoint, the filmmakers take advantage of the comparatively lo-fi quality of even high definition streaming video with contrast, frame buffering, and motion artifacts – along with the clip and distortion of the digital audio – helping to obscure and suddenly reveal its scares while hiding the seams of some digital effects, as well as some cheesy gimmick phone animated filters and backgrounds used to disarming effect during tense scenes. If the ending is no different from what has become de rigueur for the "found footage" genre, what comes before it is entertaining and does not test the seasoned horror viewer's patience.

Video

Shot primarily on smartphones by the performers themselves with some added inserts and composite elements, Host's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen image does not look like a standard high definition production, and it shouldn't since it exploits the imperfections of the medium far more realistically and effectively than some other productions shot with HD cine cameras and (never convincingly) digitally degraded to look of lesser quality.
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A Region A release is also due out in the U.S. from RLJ Entertainment with fewer extras according to the press releases.

Audio

The original stereo mix is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and it too exploits the limitations of digital audio captured on the fly – on the commentary, the director and producer explain that they had cleaner audio from lavelier microphones but that the sound designer ended up primarily using the original Zoom audio – and optional English HoH subtitles are also provided.
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Extras

Extras start off with a pair of commentaries. On the audio commentary by co-writer/executive producer/director Rob Savage and producer Douglas Cox, Savage discusses the origin of the film in the "quarantine film club" which included several of the actors and behind the scenes personnel, the prank video he shot and the reactions of the cast which went viral, and pitching the film to Shudder. The pair discuss the challenges of shooting a film while maintain social distancing with the actors shooting their own footage with Savage's direction over the phone, hidden edits within what appear to be long takes, stunt work, and digitally paintin out equipment and the actors' family and housemates who crewed the film, as well as the ambition of cramming digital effects and stunts into a film for which viewers might have low expectations given the medium. On the audio commentary by actors Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Webb, and Edward Linard, the actors recall the prank video, the test run séance, and worrying about staying in character and offending Baxter who they (with the exception of Bishop) did not realize that she was an actress and not a real medium. They also recall making nasty remarks in character about Lofthouse without realizing that Linard and Lofthouse could hear them while the former was waiting for his cue to join the Zoom conversation.
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In the cast interview (29:24), they discuss Savage's prank film and how they were wary of being pranked again when Savage asked if they were interested in making a horror film in lockdown, not having a script so much as a beat sheet, and improvising on a daily basis. The behind-the-scenes segment (34:19) covers a lot of the same material but we actually get to see the prank video and their reactions, pitching the film to Shudder with the challenge of starting almost a week after greenlighting, and deciding with writing partner Jed Shepherd that they needed an objective third party and brought in Gemma Hurley. Hurley recalls being given a list of film homages as well as working out with the others how to exploit the Zoom platform. Stunt coordinators Nathaniel Marten and Mathew McKay discuss the unusual approach of going to the locations and seeing what was possible rather than trying to adapt concepts in a script to the locations, and visual effects supervisor Steven Bray discusses the challenges of painting out people playing the ghost from shots, reframing shots in post, as well as the more than four thousand digital overlay elements including the Zoom window itself.

"Is There Goblins Now?" (2:10) is the original prank video in which Savage takes his phone with him as he investigates noises in his home's overhead loft, cleverly cutting to a jump scare from [REC] (with permission from Filmax), while "Kate Scare" (2:40) is Savage's test run of the video on fellow filmmaker Kate Herron. The Host Team Séance (9:34) is the test run with an actual medium mentioned in the extras in which Savage mentions characteristics of the performers coming out that contributed to characterization in the final film. The BFI Q&A with co-writer/executive producer/director Rob Savage, co-writers Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley, producer Douglas Cox, editor Brenna Rangott, and actors Haley Bishop & Caroline Ward, moderated by Anna Bogutskaya (67:47) is actually split into two sections, the first with Savage, Shepherd, and Hurley in which Savage namecheck Unfriended, Ghostwatch, and Paranormal Activity 3 and notes that Hurley's sketches of characters before even meeting the cast had some surprising parallels with the actresses' real lives, and Hurley in discussing how little opportunity there was to establish character before the Zoom conversation but wanting to avoid the convention of "arseholes getting what they deserve." The "Evolution of Horror" interview with actor/director Rob Savage, and writers Gemma Hurley & Jed Shepherd (34:16) is a video supplement to the titular podcast covering much of the same material. The disc closes out with a selection of Savage’s short films: "Dawn of the Deaf" (12:23) which starred Bishop, Drandova, and Ward, and "Salt" (2:09) which is an earlier effort featuring digital effects work by Bray.
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Packaging

Not provided for review were the rigid slipcase featuring new artwork by Thomas Walker, perfect-bound booklet with the original story outline and new essays by Ella Kemp and Rich Johnson, and six collector art cards (a seventh art card featuring new key art exclusive to Second Sight store customers).

Overall

If the ending of Host is no different from what has become de rigueur for the "found footage" genre, what comes before it is entertaining and does not test the seasoned horror viewer's patience.

 


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