Review: Horror flick ‘Host’ stages Zoom séance for pandemic jumpscares

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Host'

Stuck indoors during the coronavirus shutdown, many screenwriters sought to tackle pandemic themes from Netflix’s “Social Distance” to HBO’s “Coastal Elites.”

However, the very best of them all might just be the new horror flick “Host,” now streaming on Shudder, which you can access for a free trial through Amazon Prime.

It follows a curious group of teenagers who gather on Zoom for a virtual séance. One of them tempts the fates by not taking it seriously, unleashing holy hell on the group.

The young cast is filled with believable newcomers: Haley Bishop is the steady ringleader, Jemma Moore is the troublemaker, Emma Louise Webb is the casual lush, Caroline Ward is the scaredy cat, Radina Drandova and Alan Emrys are the bickering couple and Edward Linard is the outgoing Teddy, whose girlfriend logs him off early.

It’s smart to give each of these characters a distinct quality so that they don’t blend together as we jump back and forth between Zoom windows. Each character brings something different to the table, which is a credit to co-writers Rob Savage, Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd inside such a short, claustrophobic construct.

They heed (and ignore) the sage wisdom of their hired medium Seylan Baxter (“Macbeth”), who serves as their conduit to the spirit realm. Sure, she follows in the footsteps of previous archetypes in “Poltergeist” (1982) and “The Conjuring” (2013), but the difference here is that she’s not in the house. She’s instructing them remotely.

As director, Savage delivers well-timed jumpscares that are legitimately scary. He also knows how to build tension from what lurks outside the frame (i.e. “Halloween”) and in the background (i.e. “The Strangers”). You might even argue that the stacked Zoom windows mine suspense like Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” albeit more lowbrow.

As such, “Host” marks the latest fascinating evolution of the found footage subgenre of “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Ring,” “V/H/S” and “Paranormal Activity,” only now the footage unfolds in real time via Zoom. Thus, “Host” captures the zeitgeist of our time.

In a way, the pandemic has leveled the playing field where celebrities like Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”) discovered it on Shudder and tweeted praise to the cast:

Yes, it’s low budget. Yes, it’s simple. Yes, it’s even a bit predictable. And yet, the film has a 100% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. Add me to the consensus. Hell, I’d rate it even higher if it were just a little bit longer. At a brisk 57 minutes, “Host” is essentially half a movie. Even so, it’s a frightfully great time if you’re in the mood for Halloween.

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