It was only a matter of time before someone made a Zoom horror movie. The success of Searching and the Unfriendeds — offshoots of the found footage genre, made on shoestring budgets and taking place entirely via computer screen — was proof of concept, and the rise of Zoom as the COVID era’s ubiquitous technology du jour positioned the video conferencing platform as an alluring filmmaking tool. Inevitable as such a project may have been, the result is a pleasant surprise — Rob Savage’s Host (streaming exclusively on Shudder) is the first out the gate and makes the most of its premise, cleverly stuffing scares into a lean 56-minute package that plays on the audience’s assumed familiarity with the technology at work.
For many of us, 4+ months of conducting our professional and personal lives exclusively over Zoom has birthed a certain level of inherent emotion regarding the software — I personally didn’t even need a whiff of the supernatural for my blood pressure to rise as I was stressed from the first minute simply due to seeing the Zoom interface, a screen I now inextricably associate with both joy and anxiety — and Savage and his editor Brenna Rangott weaponize that understanding with impressive skill. The film’s setup perfectly captures the exhausting energy of a multi-party Zoom call, alternating between the contained chaos of the grid view and the headache-inducing switching of speaker view, utilizing both modes to generate maximum unease. Once the demonic terror kicks into high gear following an online séance gone wrong, Zoom’s array of quirky (and buggy) features are harnessed for delightfully nefarious purposes, notably in the form of virtual backgrounds that conceal the goings-on and filters that reveal far too much. You just know that the cast and crew must have had a blast going through each of the program’s functions and brainstorming how it might be repurposed for the horror context, and there’s a sense of devious pleasure every time you realize how a standard piece of the Zoom toolkit is going to be twisted.
But as fun as the Zoom quirks are, the real joy comes from the impressive effects work Host showcases. Lights flicker, chairs fly around the rooms, people fall from the ceiling — all standard fare for a haunted house movie, but when that film is being shot by actors and stunt performers operating their own cameras in separate locations and edited by compositing sequences that switch between the two, the degree of difficulty changes the complexion of the film. The question of whether a film’s production context should influence one’s opinion of the finished product (see, e.g., Leonardo DiCaprio’s Best Actor win for being cold in The Revenant) is interesting to grapple with in theory, but in reality it’s nearly impossible to silo off the different factors; most moviegoers understand, at least to some extent, the process of moviemaking, and part of the fun with certain types of films — for instance, the later Mission: Impossible entries — is taking that mental peek behind the curtain and wondering how the hell did they do that? While Host may ultimately feel like a feature-length version of that question — character-based narrative and emotional depth are thin to the point of non-existence — it stands as an example of the power of creativity to overcome unenviable artistic circumstances and give us some much-needed thrills.