Seances and Lo-Fi Aesthetics: Host

A common joke I use to justify impulse purchases and essentially having dressed down since March of this year is “The isolation of a Pandemic does strange things to people.” And for many of us, one strange behavior we’ve all had to engage in this the use of digital mediums to talk to friends and loved ones.

Don’t get me wrong; services like Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and Facetime have provided a much-needed way to stay in touch with people. It’s not as good as being there in person. But in an era where face-to-face indoor contact can have disastrous results, people are taking what they can get. But it goes deeper than mere hangout times. Industries that have previously required in-person interactions are now having to navigate a world mediated by webcams. The film industry has been especially set back. Hollywood’s releases seem to have slowed to a mere trickle compared to previous years. Movie theaters are locking their doors, and streaming services like Netflix are now having to manage release schedules like never before.

Enter Host, a Shudder exclusive film that has entered the horror zeitgeist based around a timely premise. Filmed using the video chat platform Zoom, it tells the story of a group of friends who decide to have an online seance via video chat. The idea feels, on the surface, a little too on the nose. At best it sounds silly, at worst, a cynical cash-in on a devastating medical and social disaster.  But this a classic case of having to not judge a piece of media by it’s proverbial cover. Host is actually an incredibly smart, fun horror film. It plays not only with the assumptions of Found Footage and Haunting type films, but also with the very nature of it’s medium.

“Can you hear me?”
– Every Zoom chat ever

Everyone recalls the first time you see a Found Footage horror movie. For me, the first I recall is the original The Blair Witch Project.  While it has been parodied to death in the years since it’s release, it’s hard to describe the actual visceral horror of that movie without having seen it during it’s initial run. A combination of clever marketing and a deliberate use of minimalist effects made the film, in many regards, incredibly believable. The Blair Witch Project didn’t attempt to wow it’s audiences with digital effects or overly long exposition. It dove at the core of the ghost story, isolating it’s cast and relying on what you can’t see to do the work.

This is the lesson that Host decides follow. A relatable premise (friends engaging with each other via Zoom,) thrust into a scary situation (a seance,) have to try and endure a terrifying ordeal. Instead of bogging the film down with deep back stories for every character, it relies on the dialogue to tell you about the personalities of the protagonists. And instead of trying to force a non-diegetic score into the film, it allows for perhaps one of it’s most believable elements to come center stage.

As some of you know, outside of writing about horror films, I have been the co-host of a podcast for several years. My creative partners and I primarily record inside a studio environment. We try to always maintain a high audio quality for our endeavors, making the end result as pleasurable to listen to as is possible. In most traditional films, this is as important a goal as the clarity of visuals.  We are frankly spoiled by our modern media. Most consumer-grade communication programs can’t realistically create that. The average person does not have a HD quality webcam, ring lighting, or highly-sensitive microphones at their disposal. The end result of many Zoom chats is video and audio that is glitchy and uneven. Host very cleverly utilizes element to winning effect. It’s virtually impossible to make out fine details behind the person centered in the image. Instead of being alienating, this sort of intentional sloppiness is actually quite endearing. For those who have spent countless hours working from home and relying on video conferencing to communicate, the tinny quality of audio is paradoxically immersive.

While watching the film, I became incredibly aware that there is something similar to an early Punk or Black Metal recording element in effect with Host. Low quality recordings were often the best many of these musicians could realistically afford. In the case of Black Metal, some musicians intentionally would use cheaper gear to achieve this effect.  (For reference, checkout seminal Black Metal band Mayhem and their album, Deathcrush.) This element of lo-fi production deeply assists the acting itself. Our protagonists are not perfectly styled or wearing excessive make-up.  Sweatpants and imperfectly dyed hair serve again to immerse the audience in a world where outward appearance is no longer quite as important. (Let’s be honest people…how many of us are only wearing gym shorts of old T-shirts right now?)

So does Host live up to the hype? Frankly, yes. Time will tell whether or not it has any lasting power after the Pandemic of 2020 passes. At worst, it could be a tell-tale piece of art from a particular time period. But it’s worth pointing out that paintings made during and after the Flu Pandemic of 1919 have a profound impact even now. The effects of isolation and infectious disease are very real, and subsequently very potent sources of fear. Host may not be telling a new story, but it is an important, timely update on old themes.

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show

The Ties That Bind: Metamorphosis and Domestic Horror

Who can you trust?

This short question is at the root of many fears. Humans have almost always existed in family groups; since the dawn of humanity one of the baseline assumptions of civilization is that family should be the first people we trust. For the overwhelming majority of people their family is the first relationships they ever have. But what happens to people if they are betrayed by their families?

This question lies at the heart of Hong-seon Kim’s 2019 film Metamorphosis. This Shudder exclusive, on paper, appears to be nothing more than another film about demonic possession and supernatural terror. But beneath the surface of a narrative that horror fans are already no doubt familiar with is a much harder set of themes.

(Warning! Minor spoilers ahead!)

So let’s set the scene: after an exorcism goes wrong, a young Catholic priest named Joong-su is suffering a crisis of faith and of his profession. To compound his miseries, his brother Kang-gu and his family (composed of his wife, Myung-joo, daughters Sun-woo and Hyun-joo, and son Woo-jong) have moved from their previous home due to the negative attention this incident. But soon they discover that moving isn’t enough, and the that the family has a supernatural battle on their hands. Worse still, the family will be forced to ask who amongst their relatives they should trust.

Metamorphosis is one of those films that is entirely more interesting in execution than it seemingly should. In an era post-Paranormal Activity, films about hauntings and possessions run the risk of being, put simply, not scary. Moreover the seemingly simple narrative of “Good vs. Evil” can often be a lazy excuse for an overly-simplistic plot. And what film featuring demonic possession can hold a candle to The Exorcist?  Metamorphosis does draw a handful of influences from The Exorcist, but there is an argument to be made that any film dealing with demonic possession is going to draw criticisms for being derivative of William Friedkin’s work.

But putting Metamorphosis in a singular box of “demon movie” is both reductive and unfair.  It deals instead with a more primal sort of fear. I would argue, in fact, that it smartly addresses one of the most important roots of fear: betrayal.

While I find it typically advisable to stray away from “theories of everything,” I do think that there are recurring themes within any sort of storytelling. In the case of horror, the recurring element that is addressed is the sense of betrayal in a person or group’s life. Going back to a previous point, why was The Exorcist so incredibly resonant with audiences, both upon it’s release in 1973 and today? One can point to the acting or the special effects. Both are still effective, even now. And it would not be unfair to say that Friedkin’s directing creates an atmosphere that is entirely believable. But the plot of a pre-teen girl being possessed by Satanic forces causes us to examine how such nightmarish events could be linked to such a seemingly innocent child. We, the audience, are dealing with a betrayal of our trust in the inherent goodness of children, and that “these things don’t happen.”

“Dr. Freud, you have a call on Line One”

With Metamorphosis, the true horror at the core of the film is that the betrayal of family and home. As the demonic entity begins to torture Joong-su’s family, it decides to use the forms of the family members themselves. This act creates an air of confusion that is genuinely unsettling. Typically speaking most parents don’t scream at or become physically abusive towards each other. Home should in most cases be a place where individuals can be comfortable. The betrayal of the sanctity of home and family is, at bare minimum, a deep and old anxiety.

Is Metamorphosis a perfect horror film?  Of course not. But it is an incredibly smart film. It uses the tropes of demonic confession and Catholic exorcism in an ingenious way. Many films could learn to use the actual horror elements of any plot as a framing device, and not the core of the film itself, like as this film does. This is not to say, however, that the film doesn’t have broad appeal. The sharp, believable acting of the cast will appeal to people wanting psychological horror.  The sharp cinematography is a genuine pleasure and will satisfy fans of a more artistic bent. And then there’s the gore. There are some genuinely gross moments in this movie that made even me feel a little squeamish.

Metamorphosis is not for the light-hearted, but is a genuinely rewarding film. It is guaranteed to get under your skin and make you to squirm. Most of all, it will make you nervous about your closest connections. Is the person on the couch with you to be trusted? How well do you know your neighbors? And if you don’t have good answers to those questions, do you have the number for a priest in your phone’s contact list?

Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis.  For more  of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show