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“Host,” a new horror movie about a haunted Zoom meeting, is decent, as far as high-concept genre exercises go. It’s only 56 minutes long, features some cool practical stuntwork thanks to the team at Lucky 13 Action, and is surprisingly not overbearing in its depiction of the Way We Live Now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Co-writer/director Rob Savage’s supernatural calling card movie is a fine enough way to kill an hour, which is about as long as an episode of prestige TV. “Host” doesn’t really need to be better than that, though its creators’ modest ambitions probably won’t blow you away either.
Savage's project starts, continues, and ends simply: six friends log on to Zoom for a video chat seance, led by the flakey, but serious-minded Scottish spiritualist Seylan (Seylan Baxter). Nobody but Seylan takes this ritual seriously, though Haley (Haley Bishop), the group’s obligatory scold, does try to get her friends to appear respectful. Naturally, it’s only a matter of minutes before Haley’s besties are giggling, though their snotty behavior is too mild to be memorable, let alone worthy of the grisly events that follow. I mean, maybe you’ll chuckle when Haley and the gang take a drink every time Seylan says “astral plane.” But even if you do laugh, you’ll still be waiting with the rest of us for something to leap out of a perilously under-lit doorway, closet, or staircase.
The movie’s haunted carnival ride vibe is inevitably tested by the movie’s high-concept premise. How many times can you look at the same dark corners, and expect to be terrified when various household objects either fly towards or away from the camera? How much dead air can you take before the movie goes from "creepy" to "clammy"? And how many irrelevant and/or unexplained supernatural props need to be introduced before you realize that you’re being setting up for some good smack-you-in-the-face jump scares?
Savage and co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd do a fine enough job setting up their movie’s better set pieces, but it’s hard to overlook some obvious foreshadowing here, and some ham-fisted symbolism there. To be fair, convincing jaded horror fans to look past a gimmicky premise like "possessed online group chat" is a hard bar to clear. But it’s not impossible, as you can see in other recent video-chat-centric “Screenlife” horror movies, most of which feel like the Web 2.0 descendants of “The Blair Witch Project” (“Unfriended” is still the best example of this already played-out trend).
You often have to try to stay in the mood when you’re watching “Host.” Every new plot point feels like a pretext for programmatic jump scares. Caroline (Caroline Ward) breaks out her selfie stick when she looks at, and then later climbs up her attic stairs. Emma (Emma Louise Webb) sprinkles flour on the floor, which later reveals a few spooky footprints. And Haley uses her Polaroid camera to spot something hanging in her bedroom doorway. Bleeding, blurry faces leap out of the shadows. And technology always determines what you can, and can’t see. Sometimes, that’s funny. Intentionally, even, like when a “Running out of time?” warning flashes on-screen as the movie starts to wind down.
It’s nice to see that the first horror movie to specifically address our present hellish circumstances is as unpretentious and tidy as it is. And “Host” is one of the most entertaining new horror movies to be released since quarantine began in mid-March (“Followed,” another recent Screenlife flick, also has its moments). “Host” is worth a look if you already have a Shudder subscription, but don’t knock anybody over in your haste to catch it.
Available today on Shudder.