Found footage horror is a subgenre that, through the first-person perspective, has been able to articulate our complex and ever-changing relationship with technology. With the Paranormal Activity franchise, surveillance cameras and static frames became a way to capture the supernatural. In JeruZalem, apocalyptic horrors are captured via Google Glass. In Afflicted, vlogging is used to document and upload the realtime transformation of a man into a vampire. As our obsession with filming the world around us grows, so do the potential avenues for found footage horror.
With the advent of the Internet, live streaming, Snapchat, and video chatting platforms, the found footage subgenre has now evolved to be more than just shaky handheld cameras — and more than just found footage. Films such as Unfriended, Megan is Missing, and The Den venture into the digital world, confining their stories to the screen of a laptop upon which viewers are given a glimpse of unfolding terrors. But that small screen is merely a vessel for an endless world of horrifying possibilities.
A shining example of those possibilities is seen in Rob Savage’s Host. The film takes place entirely on Zoom, a piece of software that we have all become increasingly familiar with in the past few months. Host was also filmed entirely through Zoom and follows six friends who come together from their respective apartments to drink wine, chat, and, most importantly, conduct a seance.
But as twenty-somethings are wont to do, most of them don’t take the ceremony seriously, which unleashes deadly consequences. Something evil is able to travel through the Internet and terrorize each participant, turning one of the few avenues of connection right now into an object of terror. Host takes something that we use for comfort and weaponizes it.
There is one moment that truly captures the horrors of Host. In the frame is just a face filter floating in the air. This is not a quick glimpse of the filter, but a slow, agonizing moment as Emma (Emma Louise Webb) slowly walks towards it using her webcam as a guide. Without it, she would have no idea something was there. With the first-person perspective, we embody Emma’s experience of wanting to investigate but also being terrified of what may be waiting under that virtual mask. While it seems to be a glitch, as Emma reaches out to “touch” it, it suddenly moves to look at her. This is more than a temporary malfunction. Finally, the digital world has given a face to the malevolent presence — something as silly as a face filter has made the demonic tangible.
Importantly, the character Emma is seen using face filters on herself throughout the beginning of the film. She scares the rest of the group with filters that look like a bloody pig and a lizard, complete with the tongue flicking out. This small feature of a Zoom call becomes an important tool in developing Emma’s personality; she is the clown of the friend group, always trying to make everyone laugh. Such an emphasis on her use of filters readies you for something scary to happen further down the line. But even with that expectation, you cannot help but shudder as Emma shakily approaches the thing in front of her.
In fact, each character of Host becomes associated with a particular feature of Zoom, which allows Savage to experiment with every aspect of the program in creating fear. No longer are these innocuous extras a fun way to break up the tedium of quarantine. Instead, these once small glimmers of joy have become harbingers of death.
Not only is the disembodied face scary to look at, but it is also an homage to Alfred Sole’s 1976 slasher, Alice, Sweet Alice. That film’s killer wears the exact same clear mask covered in bright red blush and blue eyeshadow. Host is full of such Easter eggs, making this an even more engaging experience for seasoned horror fans.
Savage has proven the creativity possible not only through found footage but also during this time of self-isolation. In a time when so many of us are disconnected from our support system, what is scarier than the very means of personal connection becoming tainted and deadly? With a floating mask in an empty living room, Host encapsulates our cultural anxieties as well as what terror looks like in 2020: lonely and uncanny.
Host is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.