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Host review – Zoom-based horror is surprisingly sharp and scary

Rob Savage capitalises on the nightmare of lockdown for a yarn that’s timely but never tacky - and refreshingly lean at 57 minutes

Timely but never tacky, Rob Savage’s Zoom-based horror film Host has found a way to make 2020 even more terrifying than it already feels. As a group of friends, bored in lockdown like the rest of the world, decide to shake up their night by taking part in a virtual seance, it turns out that even without leaving your own home there’s no hiding from something that could kill you.

We meet Haley, Jemma, Caroline, Radina and Emma from behind their respective laptop screens – the whole film takes place on Zoom. The girls – the first-time actors use their own names for their characters – swap niceties about lockdown (Caroline’s dad keeps going out; Radina moved in with her boyfriend) before the games begin. Another friend, Teddy, briefly joins them – but, well, you’ll see what happens to him.

Host is painfully familiar in a positive way, with dialogue that feels completely lived in, both in the jokes everyone can be heard making about the fears of coughing in 2020, as well as the nods and winks these best friends share. But it's also what makes the scares – intense and original – even more satisfying when they do arrive.

Savage leans into the inevitable failings of technology in order to heighten the horror, forcing his protagonists to do battle with software glitches as much as mysterious demons summoned by disrespecting the astral plane. And for the viewer, it's thrilling, the frame swapping from each person’s individual Zoom window towards a wider or closer look at whichever pocket the nightmare is unfolding in.

Nobody can run or hide: stay at home and save lives, remember? You can’t look away, either, because where would you go? Thankfully, Host never loses its sense of humour, as quirks that can only be understood if you’ve lived through the coronavirus pandemic make for some of the film’s best jokes.

Every performance is surprisingly convincing, too, inspiring what you would hope will be a long career for actor Haley Bishop and company. She and Jemma Moore, in particular, switch from fear to irritation and determination with lightning-fast precision, ensuring the viewer cares about the people on this call rather than just the tools failing or the spirits haunting them.

There is certain to be plenty of cringe-inducing art borne out of COVID-19 – horror stories that lean too far into terrifying mundanities or make a pantomime out of an otherwise tedious reality. Host is not one of them: carving a sharp and scary scenario that just so happens to be held over Zoom and in 2020, rather than being terrifying because of it, Savage and his team nail every aspect of this timely horror. Plus, at only 57 minutes, they could teach the rest of the film industry a thing or two about pacing.

Host is available in cinemas and on select digital platforms from 4 December.

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