I don’t know how many people remember the movie “Unfriended”. The 2014 found footage film ushered in a subgenre within a subgenre called video-meeting footage or “computer screen films” where the action was filmed through a video chat between the characters. This subset of found footage movie’s are meant to play out as more in-the-moment narratives as if we were involved in the chat in real time rather than serving as past footage found released to the public. There’s not too many movies in this subgenre other than “Unfriended”, it’s sequel and movies like “The Den” and “Searching”. What could possibly be considered the best entry in this grouping though is a 2020 film I am way behind reviewing called “Host”. Filmed using Zoom technology and using the current pandemic as its backdrop, “Host” is a Shudder exclusive that explores a lot of the same ground as “Unfriended” but proves to me more timely, insightful and, best of all, scarier than most of its predecessors resulting in my hands down favorite example of computer screen film within the found footage subgenre to date.
Released in mid-2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and even shot and edited within the limits of Britain’s COVID quarantine, “Host” follows a small cast of friends played by Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, and Edward Linard, mostly using their real names, who gather for a séance over Zoom. When one of the girls fails to take the occasion seriously, she unknowingly invites a demon into their chat who proceeds to terrorize and kill the friends off one by one. The film makes spectacular use of its setting and chosen technology by running in real time for a scant 57-minutes, nearly as long as the basic Zoom account will allow a video call to last. Unlike a lot of found footage-style films that waste time on setup and dead space to create mood, atmosphere and increase the tension “Host” doesn’t bother nor does it need to bother with any of that. From the very beginning this movie keeps you on edge and provides spectacular commentary on the anxieties and isolation many have felt in the months following the pandemic outbreak.
“Host” might be one of the most tightly made found footage-esque movies on the market today. It’s an easy, suspenseful, effective watch that knows exactly what it wants to be without ever trying too hard to accomplish that and it does it all in spite of the limitations set upon it by the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic works to the film’s favor. Setting the stage with all of the characters taking part in a séance as a way to stay connected while quarantined from each other, “Host” captures a lot of the emotions and anxieties many people have suffered through in this pandemic becoming probably the first great and noteworthy movie made during and about the COVID-19 outbreak. Hidden beneath its seemingly simple narrative about friends being haunted by a demonic entity is a pretty slick interpretation of timely ideas and themes that provides a snapshot of how we’re all feeling trying to escape the unknown demon around us and how the isolation can add to that discomfort. It’s pretty cool actually how well writer-director Rob Savage and his crew manage to capture the COVID experience in what is probably one of the simplest horror films you could ever conceive. Even just the way this film shows how chaotic things can go in an extremely short time is reminiscent about how COVID impacted the world in mere months or even days. if there was ever a movie that could capture and summarize the pandemic experience this movie did so in the most basic and universally relatable form.
What’s even cooler about this movie is that the cast played a huge part in bringing it to life. Because of the limits of COVID-19 the film had to actually be shot on Zoom and the cast were taught and instructed on how to create the special effects in their own homes. So everything you see on screen was done mostly with practical effects or minimal visual inserts and it was done by the cast themselves who actually learned how to make cabinets open, chairs move and doors close on their own. It’s also pretty impressive how in such a short time we learn so much about who these ladies (and one gentleman) are. While there might be a few too many examples of foreshadowing thrown in hinting at their individual demises, I genuinely felt for each one and wanted pretty much all of them to find a way to survive. I was surprised how emotionally invested I was in these people surviving the situation which is more than I can say about a lot of found footage movies where the joy came more from seeing how they’d die rather than the dread of knowing something was going to happen to them. The characters are all surprisingly well defined, even if we only know what we need to know about them and nothing more, and feel very natural, like true friends going through a genuine ordeal and feeling helpless that they can’t save each other from this unseen force.
If you’re going to do a found footage or computer screen movie, take notes people. This is how you do it. “Host” is short, sweet and to the point with likable characters who all feel genuinely human and a scenario that feels truly terrifying because a lot of the emotion built into it reflects the world today. The intentional or unintentional incorporation of themes stripped right out of our modern health crisis make this a horror movie with a surprising amount of depth, a stripped down yet believable style, and a neat design that stays true to its format and reminds us that there really is still some potential in exploring the outer limits of the found footage subgenre. Yeah, it does follow a specific formula like most films of this kind tend to do, but it does it well and, in my opinion, even does it better than many of its predecessors. This film is fun, scary, engaging and conforms to an appropriate run time. For me it’s the perfect horror package. I absolutely LOVED it!