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