Surviving the shitstorm that was 2020 was tough on a lot of us. Not so much the people who created video-conferencing app Zoom. They must've made a killing in shares alone as people around the globe signed up to their services in order to connect with friends and loved ones from the comfort of their own homes during lockdown.
One such group of friends who signed up to Zoom during the first UK lockdown are old college pals Emma (Emma Louise Webb), American Haley (Haley Bishop), Caroline (Caroline Ward), Jemma (Jemma Moore), Radina (Radina Drandova) and Teddy (Edward Linard). They've subsequently been holding regular meetings where, each week, they take turns to host the evening and suggest a theme for their chat - a board game night, a quiz, etc.
In the meantime, Radina has moved in with her new boyfriend during lockdown and the strain on their relationship is already showing. Caroline is stressed over how staying indoors is affecting her skin's pores and how she has to constantly stop her elderly father from going outdoors. Teddy's staying with his girlfriend's parents at their plush dwelling complete with pool, and has taken to tying his hair into a man-bun in lieu of access to a barber. Everyone else seems to be handling the situation relatively well.
On the evening of HOST's events, the party is led by Haley. She's suggested the group stage an online seance and has roped in medium Seylan (Seylan Baxter) to facilitate said undertaking.
Seylan joins the group chat and immediately adopts an earnest approach. "It's very important that you respect the spirits" she warns early on. She also advises that, by holding a seance over the internet, the group are unable to hold hands in a circle as is usual - but they can meditate to create a virtual protective circle. They are, though, more vulnerable to the spirits than usual. Alas, Haley notwithstanding, the rest of the gathering doesn't seem to be taking this endeavour too seriously. They're more given to secretly taking shots each time Seylan says the words "astral plane".
Seylan attempts to make contact with a spirit but we get off to a false start when an answering knock to her call apparently happens to be a postal delivery at her front door. Things go awry when Jemma freaks out and claims to have felt "almost unbearable" pressure on her neck. She attributes it to the spirit of a boy she once knew named Jack, who hanged himself following being bullied at school.
And with that, Seylan's internet connection is lost - she's gone. At this point, Jemma admits she was pulling a stunt to liven things up. It turns out she may have indeed disrespected the spirits! Haley manages to contact Seylan via telephone and explains what's happened ... in reply, Seylan warns that Jemma's lie has most likely resulted in allowing any spirit, however malevolent, to come through to their world and she can basically offer no protection whatsoever.
Strange noises, movements in the peripheries of character's screens ... all manner of unexplained phenomena begins to occur. The group's mood soon turns from one of jollity to genuine tension. They can only watch their split-screen displays helplessly as events escalate in devastating fashion.
Filmed during lockdown via Zoom, HOST is the brainchild of director Rob Savage along with his co-writers Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley. On the strength of a 2-minute prank video Savage posted in an online group during the early days of Covid-19 - which quickly went viral - Horror-devoted subscription channel Shudder contacted the budding filmmaker with the proposition of expanding his lockdown-themed, Zoom-based joke to feature length. He recruited the finest aspiring technicians he knew and took up the challenge. The resulting HOST became one of the streaming sensations of 2020.
The film is shot on each of the player's devices - smartphones, tablets etc. Thankfully, there are precious little of the usual post-production glitches employed here: everything seems very natural, and events play out in real time - thus adhering to Zoom's 60-minute limitation on free usage. Another nice touch is how it's quickly established that some of the group are pranksters who use the filter technology on their devices to create creepy illusions. This adds credence to the initial scepticism when the real horrors begin.
Although the format and length of the film doesn't allow for much in the way of character background, we get a sense of personality traits to an extent, and a definite belief that these guys are friendly off-screen. It helps that performances are persuasively natural across the board.
Well-edited and keenly scripted, taking in some nicely timely observations on the pratfalls of living in isolation through lockdown, HOST benefits from a satisfying build-up. While its combination of digital and practical effects are proficiently executed in the latter stages, it's here where the drama falls apart. This isn't really scary and contains a few too many familiar tropes (or "homages" as the filmmakers call them in the extras) to offer anything new to those already familiar with the likes of UNFRIENDED.
The manner in which HOST plays out begins encouragingly, but becomes very predictable and staid during its final third.
HOST receives its official release on UK blu-ray from Second Sight, who have bestowed upon it the Limited Special Edition treatment. We were given a blu-ray screener disc for review purposes.
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and, naturally, the picture is 16x9 enhanced. Running at 58 minutes and 37 seconds in length, this is the full uncut presentation of the film. Although the resolution here is full 1080p HD and the film is housed as a nicely-sized MPEG4 AVC file, it does bear noting that HOST is never going to test the capabilities of your super-duper home cinema system. As mentioned earlier, the action is almost exclusively shot on the performers' individual devices (smartphones etc), so colours and detail are limited as such. Everything is clear, colourful and thorough enough to follow in pretty crisp detail, but there's a vast difference between watching something shot either on film or HD cameras, and something that's been shot on an i-Phone or tablet ... so keep those expectations in check!
An English language 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track does its job reliably. Obviously, once again due to the means in which the action was shot, there are moments where some dialogue appears quieter at times, or even muffled. But this all falls seamlessly into events, never threatening to undermine the overall experience. Even so, well-written optional English subtitles are a welcome addition to the disc.
The disc opens to a rather novel animated main menu page (you'll have to see for yourself). From there, a pop-up scene selection menu allows access to the film via six chapters.
A hearty bevy of bonus features kicks off with a couple of insightful audio commentary tracks. In the first, a chirpy Savage is joined by producer Douglas Cox. This covers a wealth of ground, including technical information such as how certain lighting and effects were achieved, the revealing of "hidden" cuts and so on. The film's origins are discussed, stemming from Savage and Cox becoming members of an online "quarantine film club" where they met several of the eventual cast and crew members, and made their short prank film IS THERE GOBLINS NOW? which acted as the catalyst for this longer feature to follow.
We also discover that everyone working on the film knew each other apart from Linard, who nevertheless slotted in perfectly. The pair reveals how they pitched the idea of HOST to Shudder, and speak of the subsequent tribulations associated with making a film during a time of social distancing and a national lockdown. Scenes that were pre-recorded are pointed out, as are continuity errors and signalled clues which occur earlier in the film; the pair are also upfront about how they kept their cast in the dark about much of the script outside of their own characters' roles.
There's a real sense of camaraderie between Savage and Cox, which helps to make this listen as fun as it is informative.
In the second commentary track, all six of the actors portraying the Zoom-chatting pals are reunited virtually. You'd think a sextet of people watching the same film from differing locations and commenting together would soon descend into unlistenable chaos. To the participants' credit, it doesn't - they're each very respectful of allowing one another space to speak. Having said that, this track still moves along fluently. There's much less technical information on offer here; this is a more chatty, mirth-filled experience but still proffers its fair share of anecdotes relating to the shoot, and lots of less weighty but still enjoyable trivia to be had - like answers to "what's that pink fluffy thing you have on your bed there?" and so on.
Next we have a 29-minute featurette rather revealingly entitled "Cast Interview". The actors talk on video camera from their respective homes, speaking of how excited they were to get involved in this project. Everyone, that is, other than Drandova, who it seems thought the whole thing was going to result in another spooky prank like the initial short video (which went viral). We learn that HOST was originally intended to be a lot shorter in length, and get more first-hand insight into the buzz generated when Shudder got involved. The cast also reveal that they didn't really enjoy the horror genre prior to making HOST, but Savage educated them with clips from dozens of key works, ultimately raising their appreciation of the genre. This featurette works well, being slickly edited and fast-moving in a good way. There's a nice interaction between the six of them, suggesting that real friendships were formed during the making of the film.
"Behind the Scenes" is a 34-minute segment which contains further interviews with the cast, as well as Savage and Hurley. This delves a little further into the evolution of the film from online prank to Shudder feature. It also contains a good amount of footage from those earlier "quarantine film club" meetings, and it's interesting to see the influence Hurley being introduced to the fray brought to the table.
Speaking of the original prank video, IS THERE GOBLINS NOW?, we get to see that here too. It shows Savage setting the scene for his film club pals via Zoom chat by telling them he's been hearing strange noises coming from his attic for a while. So, live on the call, he goes to explore the attic while his online pals watch. It ends with a jumpy clip from [REC] and the priceless reactions of Savage's onlookers. It's a short but sweet 2-minute slice of well-edited tomfoolery.
"Kate Scare" is a 3-minute test run of the prank video prior to exposing the film club to it. This shows Savage's friend and fellow filmmaker Kate Herron's reaction to the short-sharp-shock trick.
"The Host Team Seance" elaborates on footage hinted at in the Behind-the-Scenes featurette. This is 9 minutes of a genuine seance held via Zoom between the cast and crew of HOST in an effort to give them all a feel for what was to come.
Next up is a 67-minute Q&A session filmed by the BFI, wherein host Anna Bogutskaya speaks to her guests via Zoom - of course - while they answer questions from the comfort of their own homes. This went out live, so Bogutskaya was able to act as moderator for questions submitted by viewers too. The first half of this engaging documentary features Savage, Shepherd and Hurley as guests. By now, a little bit of repetition is seeping through, but these guys are a likeable bunch so it's not too much of a hardship getting the same information again (12-week shoot, the script adapting in the meantime to accommodate daily changes in lockdown conditions etc). It's nice to see the likes of BBC's classic "Ghost Watch" and the more recent Brit flick THE BORDERLANDS getting mentions, while the likes of UNFRIENDED are also acknowledged. What's even nicer is to see how the co-writers are pretty grounded despite their success.
In the second half, Bogutskaya is joined by Bishop, Ward, Savage, Cox and editor Brenna Rangott. We delve a little more into the stunts and special effects here. As in all the other special features, Savage is an erudite but at the same time unassuming interviewee who seems more surprised by the explosion of his film than anyone else. Once again, a strong sense of good relations between all players shines through.
"Evolution of Horror" is a 34-minute interview named after a podcast ran by our host, a guy called Mike. Again, we're on Zoom - and a very enthusiastic Mike probes Savage, Shepherd and Hurley about the film's inception, development, phenomenal success and - towards the end - he gets each of his subjects to name their favourite genre flicks. Kudos to Savage for giving a shout-out to the amazing THE INNOCENTS.
Finally, we get two earlier short films directed by Savage. SALT is a very stylishly shot 2-minute shock to the senses with a distinctly demonic approach. However, I preferred the more substantial and thought-provoking 12-minute DAWN OF THE DEAF.
Both are solid horror efforts which ably demonstrate Savage's potential to direct fare far more cinematic than HOST. Both shorts are presented in their original 2.35:1 ratios and look great.
Although not available for review purposes, this Limited Edition release also comes with slipcase cover packaging, a colour collectors' booklet containing new essays by Ella Kemp and Rich Johnson, plus six exclusive art cards.
HOST brings nothing new to the table but does a solid job of holding the attention for the most part. It's well-made if somewhat hackneyed towards the end; still, the cast are likeable and the script plays upon timely issues well enough to earn it a pass. Second Sight's blu-ray will surely stand as the definitive release for fans.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight|