★★★ / ★★★★
In just under one hour, director Rob Savage (who co-writes with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd) is able to tell a satisfying horror tale about a group of friends who summon an entity through a seance using the Zoom app in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wears its inspirations on its sleeves—“Paranormal Activity,” “Unfriended,” and “Friend Request” quickly come to mind—yet it is able to take note of what worked and makes them more potent. I wish more movies can be as direct and efficient; it is apparent the filmmakers value our time.
We are not meant to get to know any of the characters—not even Haley (Haley Bishop), host of the video chat who has hired Seylan (Seylan Baxter) to guide them through the seance. However, we are presented just enough details in order to get a surface feel of the participants’ personalities, from Haley who holds a certain respect (and thrill) in communicating with the dead, Caroline (Caroline Ward) who is open to an experience that may or may not turn out to be a dud, to Jemma (Jemma Moore) who is clearly in it just for the laughs.
One trait they all have in common: They miss each other after having been quarantined for months. Their apartments look messy and lived in—one or two in need of serious vacuuming. We also get a sense that some of the girls are closer to some than others—a delightful, realistic touch that did not be included in a breezy horror picture. But because it is there, it sets itself further apart from its contemporaries. Future works to be inspired by this film should take note.
There is restraint in utilizing special and visual effects. Naturally, there will be jump scares. When a character faces a dark room and points out to others that she sees something standing there, cue the countdown to the “Boo!” moment. Sometimes there are jolts. But other times the lack of it is unsettling. Its ability to change gears keeps us on our toes. The work does not always feel the need to show in order to pique our curiosity. There are instances when the horror relies upon knowing with absolute certainty that an apparition is in the room but a girl is helpless from doing anything about it. But because she is panic-stricken, she just has to know where it is in order to cope. And so she disperses flour all around the room.
There are far too many moments when characters are pulled or dragged around by an invisible force. One or two times does the job; five or six times is laughable. Still, I admired “Host” what it is able to accomplish with minimal budget, a short running time, the many familiar (and problematic) tropes it embraces, and its knack for finding ways to sell the familiar as fresh. I am interested in seeing the screenwriters helm an original work far more daring than this one. This is a solid showcase of their potential.