Throughout the 2010s the “desktop film” sub-genre has become an increasingly noticeable presence in our cinematic landscape. Films like the Unfriended franchise and Searching mirrored the large presence digital technology has in our lives by attempting to find dramatic tension in typical Internet interactions and having the entire action take place on the screen of a computer. Earning somewhat of a positive reputation over the years thanks to inventive methods, but ultimately, leaving people wondering how this new form of cinema could evolve.
Rob Savage’s latest film Host, the newest entry in the “desktop cinema” canon, answers this question by standing out for a peculiar reason. Having been conceived, shot, and released during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this Shudder-original horror film carries the weight of being one of the first films made within the confines of quarantine. Entirely produced within just 12 weeks, while practicing social distancing, Host feels like it was made in a burst of creative energy, striving to make the most out of the current restraining situation. The result is an innately unique product that manages to be one of the most bizarre film experiences in recent memory and one of the year’s best horror films.
Host, over a brisk runtime of 56 minutes, captures a Zoom call between a group of friends: Haley, Emma, Jemma, Radina, Caroline, and Teddy (played by actors using their real names) — in which they attempt to communicate with spirits by hiring a medium. Naturally, things quickly go awry as the expected supernatural hijinks start occurring. For a few minutes, it feels like Host is going through the usual horror genre routine of cheap jumpscares, fake-outs, and strange rumbling noises found in many low-budget horror films. However, as everything quickly devolves into chaos, it is clear the Host is making the most of its format.
Taking advantage of the inherent absurdity of digital aesthetics we interact with every day, Host turns these mundane experiences into genuine horror experiences. The film instantly finds a way to capture something ghostly and uncanny about regular happenings on online video conferences, like any brief WiFi connection issues or the usual strange silences and glitchy noises that may get in the way. Everything that may feel normal about these interactions feels immediately bizarre and anxiety-inducing in Host, building tension in the early portions of the film before the supernatural elements take over. In some of its most clever scares, Host unleashes the body-horror potential of face-altering digital filters and uses the surreal experience of things like seeing oneself as one’s own Zoom background image quite effectively.
Another one of Host‘s biggest achievements is the realization the viewer will have long after the film is over, the realization that all of the violence that the characters suffer feels as hollow and senseless as possible. This could be interpreted as an insult in a regular horror film, a sign that the film didn’t do enough to make the characters feel real and purposeful. But here, the fact that there is barely any insight into these characters’ inner lives makes Host all the more chilling. With the quick runtime and break-neck pace of the film, and considering how much of it consists of the characters taking horrible punishment by the hands of a vengeful spirit, there is no time to process anything of what’s happening, making Host feel like something that shouldn’t have been seen. Almost as if the viewer was an accidental intruder in these friends’ Zoom call that just happened to go horribly wrong. Within a familiar setting like a Zoom call, where one usually has all the agency in the world to log off or turn off the microphone, the audience is rendered powerless.
The Internet can feel like a terrifying, lonely place sometimes and it’s about time more horror media started reflecting that in a way that’s creatively inventive. Instead of a quirky cinematic exercise made during quarantine or just another “desktop film,” Host will be remembered as a standard-bearer for what digital horror aesthetics could look like in the future.