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HOST FILM STILL
Welcome to Streaming the Pandemic, a column from our sister paper The Portland Mercury in which we evaluate pop culture produced during or about the COVID-19 pandemic. Got a movie, TV show, album, etc. you think should be reviewed? Email Blair here.

The 17th Century French dramatist Jean Racine once wrote that “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.” One addition to that quote for 2021: Life is a horror for those living through a global pandemic—and the more normality we try to force on the situation , the more grotesque it becomes.

This week, we’re exploring Host, a sleeper horror hit from last summer which depicts a virtual seance gone terribly wrong.

“I’ve got to confess, I’ve never done this before over Zoom,” the seance officiant warns a group of cheeky 20-something British friends, who mostly view the experience as a silly pandemic-style drinking game. But, she adds optimistically: “There’s no reason a spirit can’t communicate with us through the internet.”

That’s the rub with having a global catastrophe occur post-Digital Revolution, isn’t it? There’s no reason we can’t do damn near anything through the internet, whether it’s office work or teaching or a happy hour or dating. Thanks to the small miracle of WiFi, many of us are in the position of living through a period of intense societal trauma while also being expected to hit our marks professionally and socially. Not even seances are put on hold. But, as the protagonists of Host discover, there are consequences to attempting to digitize every aspect of human life.

Because the friends don’t take the seance seriously, they accidentally invite an evil demon into the chat—and that demon travels from person to person, leaving destruction in its wake. The psychic facilitating the seance loses her internet connection early on, leaving the friends to piece together what’s happening without much guidance.

As the film nears its climax, two of the friends, Jemma and Haley, get into an argument over who’s to blame for inviting the demon into their Zoom room. Jemma blames Haley because the seance was her idea. Haley blames Jemma for failing to take the seance seriously in the first place. But in the end, it doesn’t much matter whose fault it is: What matters is that the demon is there, and the friends are all but powerless to stop it.

In a typical horror movie, the friend group might band together to try and defeat the demon; during a socially distanced seance, the participants can do little more than look at their computer screens in horror as the demon terrorizes each character. They’re connected enough to be haunted by the same demon, but apart enough to have to face it alone.

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These details are what make Host so successful as a pandemic-era horror film. Rather than doing the obvious thing and making the virus the monster, Host shows us how the social isolation exacerbated by the pandemic can make any traumatic experience all the more horrifying.

Host is only an hour long, and makes the most of every minute, establishing group dynamics through a few lines of dialogue and timing jump-scares perfectly. Rather than just playing up the now-familiar hallmarks of a Zoom call as a cheap gag, it uses the video delays and other formal limitations to its advantage, especially near the end of the film. I won’t ruin that ending, but once you see it coming near the end, you’ll be tensing up in suspense—and that suspense pays off before the credits roll.

You can watch Host on Shudder or Amazon Prime (paid subscriptions required), or rent it on Google Play, Vudu, or YouTube.