I’ve already spilled gallons of digital ink praising high-concept horror films about The Evils of The Internet and how technology is going to kill us all. I promise it’s not a bit. I’m genuinely enamored with movies that fully commit to an Online Horror gimmick, especially the ones that hone in on a specific app or social media platform for a temporal anchor (Skype in Unfriended, OnlyFans in Cam, CandyCrush in #horror, Snapchat in Sickhouse, Facebook timelines in Friend Request, etc.). The argument against the Online Horror gimmick is that it makes these films feel instantly dated, which I’d contend is more of a virtue than a fault. We spend so much of our modern lives online, navigating virtual spaces, that it feels outright dishonest that contemporary cinema would not reflect that digitized reality. Yet, it seems only gimmicky horror films are the ones brave enough to truthfully document & preserve our daily “lived” experience. They’re no more dated than Citizen Kane was for capturing the media mogul megalomania of contemporary figures like William Randolph Hearst or Casablanca was for reflecting America’s selfish isolationism in the earliest days of WWII. Evil Internet novelty horrors capture the moods & textures of our current era, where most of our lives play out in the eerie spaces beyond touchscreens & keyboards.
In that context, the new Shudder original Host is likely to remain one of the most vital, honest films released this year. Written, filmed, edited, and released in the months since the world went into lockdown for the current COVID-19 pandemic, Host is an instantly dated horror film and damn proud of it. Like the real-time Skype session gimmick of Unfriended (and plenty of other online found footage horrors besides), the film is staged as a fictional hour-long Zoom meeting. It’s a digital space many of us have had to become quickly acquainted with in recent months as working remotely has become more of a norm. Host smartly builds a lot of its scares around Zoom-specific quirks like the eeriness of lag time, the obscured view of pixilation, the uncanny-valley creepiness of artificial backgrounds & facial-recognition filters, and the feedback echo of a user logging into the same meeting on two separate devices. Its end credits are even scrolled through as a Zoom Participants list, which is a wonderfully thorough commitment to the premise. Other COVID-era details like a character scrambling to put on a face mask before fleeing out of their apartment or a young couple in quarantine becoming increasingly frustrated with each other’s constant presence drives home the nowness of the film even further for a shockingly unnerving experience. A decade from now (assuming we’re all alive a decade from now), this will be a priceless cultural time capsule of what life has been like this incredibly bizarre year. Of course, watching it while those wounds are still fresh only makes it more perversely fun & horrific in the interim.
Story-wise, there’s not much going on here that hasn’t already been accomplished in Unfriended (or Unfriended 2: Dark Web or Searching or The Den or so on). If anything, this is basically just a kinder, gentler Unfriended with genuinely likeable characters. That doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement on the formula, but it at least opens it up to a different flavor palate. A group of college-age women gather in a Zoom meeting for an online séance led by a spiritual guide who becomes disconnected mid-call, leaving them vulnerable to whatever ghosts or demons they may have conjured in the process. They’re generally likeable kids, and their only sin, really, is not taking the idea of an online séance very seriously (a sentiment likely shared by most of the film’s audience), which results in supernatural backlash from spirits on the other side of barrier between realms. Once the spirits start punishing these women for their careless indulgences in sarcasm & edgelord humor (they seem to be particularly miffed about a tasteless suicide joke), the movie mostly devolves into a series of haunted house gags where each Zoom participant is snuffed out one by one. The scares are impressively staged, combining practical & computerized effects to really stretch how much can be collaboratively achieved in a social-distance lockdown. And, honestly, it’s impressive that anything was achieved at all, considering how difficult it’s been to complete simple tasks and function as a human being in recent months.
Perhaps the most COVID-aware aspect of Host is that it’s only an hour long, which graciously accommodates how scattered & limited our attention spans have been since the world stopped in its tracks. Even if you’re not fully convinced that this kind of high-gimmick novelty horror about The Evils of The Internet is worthy of your attention, that hour-long commitment is such a small ask. It’s unlikely that we’ll see another feature film this year that so directly, accurately captures what life is like right now, and I’m honestly not shocked that my beloved Online Horror subgenre was the engine that got us there. It’s perfectly suited for that kind of of-the-moment documentation, with plenty of other entertaining payoffs besides.