I’m working on a new book about contemporary horror. To keep track of the films I’ve watched, I write up my notes and general reactions for later development. This post on Host is the first in the series. For posts on the theoretical basis of the project, see these posts on Jason E. Smith and Boltanski and Esquerre.
Host (2020) is a well-made little shocker from the first year of the pandemic. In 2020, meetings on Zoom were new enough that people were doing what we see the characters do in Host: actively choosing to get on Zoom to visit with friends. Zoom happy hours were a thing. It’s not drinking alone in your apartment if you’re talking to some friends on Zoom, or so the argument went. And this is what the seven friends in Host are doing: drinking on Zoom, comparing their “lockdown“ lives. The film was shot in the UK, so these characters were actually meant to be experiencing the government-mandated lockdown announced on 23 March 2020 and extended on 16 April 2020. (The film was released on 30 July 2020, before the second UK lockdown announced on 5 November.)
Shot using laptop cameras and Zoom (or edited to look like Zoom), Host is a high concept horror film: a found-footage horror film about a seance gone wrong using Zoom. That’s it. The only innovation, such as it is, is the use of Zoom. As a found-footage horror film, it follows the pattern set by The Blair Witch Project and followed by every found footage horror film since: the movie is over when the last person dies. No one gets out alive here either. It doesn’t matter whether they are being menaced individually or, as in the end, in a pair.
Perhaps that’s the formal trick of the film: to be in a frame is to be dead already, at least as a found footage horror film is concerned. Here we have characters in a pandemic, their faces in frames in Zoom, destroyed by a demon unwittingly unleashed by the one Chinese-British character (a plot point that shouldn’t be overlooked given the violence directed against Asian people in the West during the pandemic), and finally captured in the penultimate shot of the film in a triple framing: in the Zoom frame, in a photograph, in a doorway.
What, if anything, can we do with this film in a materialist vein?
Well, we could say the idea of the demon here is a kind of real abstraction. One of the friends, bored and waiting for something to happen, makes up a story to freak everyone out. The result, according to the medium, is that she has create a kind of empty mask that any entity can inhabit and use. The idea of the demonic coming forward doesn’t quite work, but of the mask that takes on its own dangerous power would.
On an affective level, the film is powerful, I think, because it captures something about experiencing life on Zoom. The images of the people on Zoom seem normal and everyday. They are present as you know them, in spaces that you recognize, mostly, and doing what you would expect them to be doing. Yet in the pandemic, these images are continually beset by the threat of disruption. Those could be minor disruptions—children, pets, deliveries, neighbors—or major. The image derealizes reality, you might say, following Debord. But this derealization is a violent dissociation of life and image. The loop of one woman brushing her teeth is a good example. This loop is her screensaver, we learn, and it comes on only after a glitch that shows the demon violently beating her to death. She is endlessly present and not present in this loop.
This, I think, is key to the film’s effects. One might think that this should be watched on a laptop, thus making the viewer part of this terrible Zoom call, an infection of the viewer perhaps best done by Ringu. That idea gets hinted at in the end as we watch some spiritual entity close out Zoom after everyone has died. But the viewing experience of this film will never be quite like that of Ringu. In Ringu, death comes from watching a video. Characters and viewers watch the video. The threat comes through the screen for characters and the implication is, for you as well. We all know you can now be part of a Zoom call without having your camera or mic on, those long video-like presentations that should have been an email, but that’s not the Zoom call of 2020, and it isn’t the Zoom call that Host gives viewers. No, what Host taps into is the fear that something might happen to the people on your call and you’ll be unable to help. That was always a possibility with video calls, but the pandemic brought this to the fore. You could see someone in their room just as you expect and then… you wouldn’t ever again.