▶︎ Host is available to stream on Shudder.

Of all the urban legends to gain traction in the modern era, the one about the babysitter who realises that – insert extreme spooky voice here – the call is coming from inside the house is at once the sturdiest and the most malleable. Both the vintage and the 21st-century versions of Black Christmas (1974/2006/2019) and When a Stranger Calls (1979/2006) exploit the terror of discovering that the heavy-breathing voice on the other end of the phone belongs to the person looking over your shoulder.

In Host, the British director Rob Savage adds a millennial spin to this old rotary-dial trope, drawing on the desktop aesthetic and ghost-in-the-machine subtext of the Unfriended films to tell a tale of socially distanced spiritualism gone awry. In the Covid summer of 2020, a group of friends stationed in multiple locations around London and elsewhere are menaced simultaneously and fatally by the same invasive presence, picked off one by one in their apartments for the grievous but unavoidable sin of logging on.

The superbly contemporary style of Unfriended (2014) and its sequel Unfriended: Dark Web (2018) harnessed old-fashioned theatricality to a digital gimmick, resulting in a pair of impressively rich texts. Reading about how those films’ creators rehearsed and shot their casts in pressurised real time – compartmentalised dramaturgy in which the actors doubled as de facto stage managers, hitting their digital marks via webcam – was at least as compelling as watching them.

So it goes with Host, which was conceived, cast, shot and edited in 12 weeks. Because everything was done remotely, the film can’t help but reflect the dispersed, contingent conditions of its production – given its subject matter, a feature, not a bug. The sheen of fragmented authenticity, combined with the fraught lockdown context in which it’s been viewed, has led to Host being received as a minor DIY classic – a Blair Witch Project for the Covid era.

It’s not that good, but for what it is, it works. Horror is all about suggestibility, and while Savage surely wasn’t the only genre wannabe to recently dream up a Zoom nightmare, he pulled it off and got it to market in a moment when the collective subconscious has been colonised by issues and anxieties about communication. What drives Host past its fairly pedestrian scare tactics is an acknowledgement of a social fabric frayed by boredom: the difference between hyper-connectivity as a luxury and as a lifeline. The film’s characters are mostly young British women seeking to fill down time: as Host opens, twentysomething Haley (Haley Bishop) has conspired to turbocharge her group’s weekly check-in call by hiring a medium to conduct a séance, a touch of the exotic to offset the indignity of being so consistently housebound.

Bad Idea, of course: nothing good has ever come of attractive sceptics reaching out to the other side. The cleverest thing about Host is how it plausibly justifies Haley’s desire to find a cheap, accessible source of entertainment for her and her pals, whose variable levels of enthusiasm for the stunt – from the effusive Jemma (Jemma Moore) to the nervy Caroline (Caroline Ward) – are in the classic haunted-house tradition where a lack of belief offers no defence against the uncanny. (The actors are all using their real names, and the dialogue – the occasional exposition-dump excepted – mostly sounds like it’s coming off the cuff.)

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Host (2020)

The medium-for-hire, Seylan (Seylan Baxter), is also an old archetype in a nicely newfangled guise, an internet adept cheerfully negotiating the apparent contradictions between the digital and spirit realms with the relaxed confidence of a true believer (and inviting mockery in the process, with the girls voting to drink every time their guide invokes “the astral plane”).

The enduring lesson of the Paranormal Activity movies (2007-) – which hover just above Unfriended as the great millennial horror franchise – was structural: that minor variations across a field of repetition can be terrifying, and also that a static, disembodied camera is an ideal witness for things that go bump in the night. Host’s real-time gimmick and compressed duration (just under an hour) don’t permit a similar patience, however, and Savage doesn’t quite nail the pacing. Even as the film takes a while to get started – with Jemma accidentally unleashing a demon during an ill-considered prank – the overwhelming feeling is of rush. (And also a feeling that we’ve been here before: a bit where a character scatters flour on the floor to investigate the possibility of an invisible presence recalls a similar moment in Paranormal Activity.)

The constant toggling between multiple webcam perspectives is impressive on the level of editing, sound design and post-production manipulation: an atmosphere of realism is established and maintained throughout. What the film lacks is the embedded empathy of Unfriended, which was closer than anything else to Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s formative social-network allegory Pulse (2001) – a fable of outcast sadness metastasising into vengeance. The speed with which Host was produced and that sense of rush elide real melancholy, and what we’re left with is a contraption. The characters are ciphers, and the extended roundelay of kills comes off as simply mean-spirited. Which is admittedly not a deal-breaker when the staging is as innovative as Savage achieves at his best: standing out against all the shaky, blurry, screamy high-jinks, there’s a bit that physically weaponises a character’s laptop against her, resulting in something like the ultimate in technophobic brutality (somewhere, the David Cronenberg of Videodrome is smiling).

The violence is as horrifying as advertised, but it’s also numbing and, therefore, disposable: this designedly anodyne movie spills blood without leaving any residue. Innovation is one thing, but true imagination is another. Late in the game, there’s a warning that the Zoom call has only ten minutes remaining, which earns a laugh of recognition from anybody who’s felt that work and social life have lately become a matter of running out the clock. Funny stuff, but there’s another countdown on Host’s own narrowing window of cultural currency, which might have closed by the time you read this review.

Originally published: 1 October 2020