Shudder's Host, directed and co-written by Rob Savage, is this peculiar moment's The Blair Witch Project, a landmark film that provides insight into not just these dark times via the technologies that have evolved from our collective woe, but also how we ourselves have evolved, changed in unexpected ways by the products of our hands. Never so much as to lose touch with what scares us, though. Even the genesis of the project--Host was born of a prank a bored Savage devised to scare his friends on a Zoom chat one evening (a prank posted later on social media, where it gained another half-life)--has its roots in how things that are old-hat (the noise in the attic, the jump scare, the Rear Window effect of being a voyeur to the love and death of loved ones without the power to affect them) don't go away as the tools of our existence change. They adapt. What we've always feared, we fear still. And here we are now with this stuff we've Frankensteined into existence (social media, virtual hosting, Bluetooth, the cloud) without a complete understanding of the doors it'll unlock in our relationship with the universe. We're playing with fire, and Host is a warning no less eloquent for being too late.
I've loved Savage's work since seeing his two-minute Salt at FrightFest a couple of years ago. Its world is more fully-realized in the span of 120 seconds than most feature films accomplish at 60x that length. Seeking out his other work, I discovered a collection of shorts (and one feature) that reveal a director firmly in charge of his images and how they tell a story secondary to any narrative considerations. He knows what he's doing. If Salt remains his masterpiece, Host is nevertheless validation of Salt's promise. I was pleased to chat with Mr. Savage and Host's own Jemma Moore, one member of a brilliant cast who, like her co-stars, delivered a completely compelling performance while having to manage her own lighting, makeup, and effects. I started out by asking what it is in particular they think Host was channelling, given that it obviously captures the current zeitgeist.
ROB SAVAGE: I think the scary thing about Host for these times is the idea of connectivity vs. the reality of the isolation we're living through. That was what we wanted to go after explicitly. All the characters are saying go into the attic, investigate the noise, we're here with you, go on, but they're not there with you. We've all been on these calls where suddenly everyone freezes, you know, you've lost the stream, and you're made aware again of how alone you really are. That was the mood. That rattling...abandonment? Is it abandonment, that feeling? It's cold. It's not a healthy place to be.
JEMMA MOORE: It's this loneliness. It's the scariest thing. And I think there's this element of different layers to fear where you can say obviously it's terrifying to be alone, but sometimes it's terrifying to be alone with someone who you love who doesn't see you, or when you're being watched and you don't see them. You go around your house and you double-check everything and you go through the cupboards and you reassure yourself that you've described a space for yourself but now, with the cameras, and your phone's always listening--I mean, are you ever really alone? I know that's a different kind of alone than loneliness, but I wonder if Host isn't hitting because it does deal with lots of varieties of fear.
RS: There's this weird sensation too with what we're doing even now. I'm sitting here and I'm looking (gestures around the screen) at me and there's Jem, there's you, and I'm aware of you looking at me and so there's always this performative measure to this.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: We're never entirely ourselves here.
RS: That's right. No matter how good a mate you're with, you're always you know acting a little bit, hiding a little bit.
JM: And that's scary too, isn't it? That what if you see through to the me that I'm hiding from you, and what if, even worse, I see through to the you that you're hiding and it's monstrous?
RS: You can be chatting on Zoom all day and still feel lonely. You're putting a frame on your life and even when you're with all your friends like you were before, you know, as soon as log off there's the great silence.
When I do events now with maybe 200, 300 people over Zoom, the audience is having one conversation with me about a foot away from them--and I'm having 2 or 300 conversations at once with each of them one foot away from me. I feel completely enervated by this. It feels vampiric.
RS: Yes. Just the act of framing something changes the meaning of something, and this is just our new viral technology, isn't it? The Blair Witch Project, The Ring. Suddenly here's this thing that is us learning a new way to communicate and we're not equipped for it, are we? There are consequences.
Tell me about your lost film.
RS: Well, that's why I'm here, I guess. I grew up loving comics and stuff and it led me into anime and then movies and the first thing I shot was a little kind of low-key relationship drama--a Richard Linklater sort of thing called Strings. I didn't really know that short films were a thing so I started with my ambitions, which was making a feature. I shot the first scene, cut it together, so happy with it, and I jumped up to get a chocolate or something, I was sixteen, and I jumped and caught the hard drive and smashed it against the wall and lost it all. And all that work and I was like. "Well, that's it, I guess I'm gonna pursue a trade or something, filmmaking wasn't meant to be." At that age, it feels like the end of the world.
And then you watched [the German movie] Requiem.
RS: Yeah. Amazing. And it's not even a horror movie, though it's about this famous exorcism--the inspiration for The Exorcism of Emily Rose as well. It had this incredible performance by Sandra Hüller and I had a flood of tears. It rewired me. I found her on Facebook and told her how much I loved the movie and her performance and then she introduced me to a young actor she had been mentoring and it sort of reinvigorated my Strings script, got me back to work with it, and that turned into my first film and...yeah, I owe her and that film everything.
What's your taste?
RS: I vacillate between really arthouse and really schlock. I'm Krzysztof Kieslowski on the one side and Wes Craven on the other side. Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours: Blue. I'm not talented like that, but on some level I'm still interested in those films and that type of storytelling. I love movies with volatile, contradictory, angry, and unpredictable protagonists. The whole movie is trying to get inside their headspace, just sitting on their shoulders and seeing what they see: interrogations of a single character.
I don't know that Kieslowski isn't making horror films.
RS: I watch the first Dekalog segment as the perfect example of the perfect short film. I still draw inspiration from it.
I know you're all friends and live close to one another. What are the benefits of that familiarity, and the drawbacks?
JM: After Rob convinced us to get back on a call with him after that evil prank he did, we were given this incredible script by Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd that had laid us all out there with essentially boiled-down versions of who we were and our dynamics in this friend group. They pulled out familiar parts of ourselves and then heightened them. They added archetypes where the character traits moved the story along and then, from there, we improvised. What Rob's really good at is making us feel comfortable to try things out, to work things out in the story and in our characters and then to direct us when we discovered, you know, an arc to follow.
RS: That's it. We were squarely midway between the character we were writing who we needed to move the story along and then the people we knew and who they were and what they brought that would deepen those characters--the trick being never to stray too far from who they were at their essence. We didn't want them to pretend to be someone completely foreign to who they were as real people. We felt that could only help with the reality of the film. We structured it like the prank video--we did a lot of the gags in advance and screened it for them live so that we could get real reactions from them. I would say, okay, there's something's going to happen here so just go with it but then Jemma...
JM: Right, there's this one moment where I said to Rob that well, you know, I'm probably going to scream, but I'm not sure my character is going to scream. She's not buying this. She's on to you, she thinks it's all rubbish.
RS: But I think that's what's so good about your performance, right, is that your natural nervousness was a perfect balance to your character, who would totally hijack the night and then bash the window at the end.
JM: I think, too, that if I'm playing the character there like totally cool and skeptical but inside I'm actually me who is very about to crap my pants when I see what horrible shit Rob has planned for the next shot, it adds a certain tension to my performance. I'm not just what I'm projecting there--there's something you can't entirely trust.
Which takes us back to the idea that we're all performing for that little camera.
JM: Yes. It gets so complicated because not only am I performing in front of the camera, but I'm now performing in front of the camera. You're already doing some level of deception, now I'm trying to manage, we're all trying to manage, several layers of deception at the same time.
RS: You're inviting people into your space in a way but it also allows you to curate what you're able to see. You can choose what you're presenting. The interesting thing is that mostly on a zoom call you keep flicking to yourself to check to see if you're doing okay there, is the light good, is there something on my face--I dunno, you feel very detached. Before all this, I'd look in the mirror for a few minutes in the morning and that would be it in the day, but now I spend all day on here looking at myself and it's... There's a bit of the uncanny to it where you now are detached from the sense of yourself, too, when you're looking at not only the performer but the audience.
"If you don't feel the story innately in the bones of the work, you're doing it wrong."
Did you have reservations, Jemma, working with your friends?
JM: I knew this was going to hit big from the start. Everyone on this team is so talented--such good minds, such hard workers, and we all got along so well. How could something great not come from it? I'd always wanted to work with Rob. He did a film at school and I went to him afterwards and said, "This is so slick," and then he did Dawn of the Deaf. We had such a level of trust with him and with one another. I don't know if we would've been able to do this film the way we did, in the time and the budget, without that shorthand and the trust we had. You can't build that right away where you tiptoe and figure out how to speak to one another. You spend time whenever you walk on set meeting your new creative family but we didn't have to do that. We started at a place already where we could just challenge one another and have that trust to push it and push it and push it.
When did you push?
JM: It was throughout--it was really a process of asking one another to do more, to do it differently. Rob would be in my ear and say, "Hey, call Haley a bitch," and I'd be like, "Hey Haley, you're a bitch." And then he'd be like, "Now tell her to eff off," and I'd do it and it's a trust thing. "Go ahead, throw a wine bottle at my head"--all this stuff you would wonder [about] but with friends, and with trust, you don't think twice. It was like live-presenting. The turnovers were so quick so we could constantly be throwing things new into the mix, which then challenged Rob and Jed and Gemma--and then they'd take that and throw it back.
RS: Usually on set you're trying to put up the front that you have a plan but the great thing working with these guys, you could say, hey, this isn't feeling quite right, I'm not sure what it is, let's find out a better way together so that the responsibility of the title of "director" on a set changes when it's completely an environment of this experimentation and evolution.
JM: That doesn't happen without trust.
RS: There were so many times my only notes were, "I don't know," and that openness, being able to be so vulnerable, really impacts the work in only a positive way.
But your films seem so planned. What's the structure look like, even if you can't see it?
RS: We spoke about backstory a lot in advance. What's going on in these relationships? What's a thing that hurt you that she said, and how did you meet and was it university? What are your relationships literally--are you gym mates? Does it make sense to us even if we don't know the whole story? Would it read? When Emma has the greatest reaction to Teddy getting burned alive, even if you the audience don't know why, do we at least we know why? Does it make sense that for all the tension there between Haley and Jemma that it would be Jemma who goes to Haley's apartment at the end? And I don't mean make sense in a narrative way that we were going to get into in the film, but does it make sense to the characters so that they have something to play?
JM: And I think when you do it that way, the things holding up the story don't necessarily have to be in the words, but they're there in our reactions and in what we do. Who are we prioritizing, how are we responding, all those things give you what you need to know about how we are connected in the film. Well, if we're doing it right.
RS: We had a lot of backstory about the demon as well, that it was a tulpa, which is something that you can create with your thoughts, especially your collective thoughts--so when everyone is in a connected state, when Jemma creates this lie about this Jack story she's made up, it's such a powerful image conjured at a vulnerable time that the group actually manifests it together. We had a whole idea of the mythology. If it was a longer movie, I think people would've expected that scene where we explain it and then backstory with the characters...
JM: There was a chunkier scene--[there were] a couple--where we had some of these confrontations, more of a reconciliation with Haley and me before the chair gets pulled back and I confess I've had a bit of a breakdown recently, and then at the moment I've confessed something hard to my friend, she gets taken away from me. What Rob would do is talk us through the script and then we'd go off and then come back and then talk Rob through the script, what we'd come up with. Our editor was incredible. There's not one moment that isn't packed with information, and we never could have done it if we hadn't done all this work. And then it's amazing to see how much of that we could cut it all away and still have the substance of it intact.
RS: I follow the Fincher rule: you should be able to follow a film on mute and still know the building blocks of the world. If you don't feel the story innately in the bones of the work, you're doing it wrong. Even in Host, as we're doing the rules of the seance, I wanted there to be something else happening, the drinking game, something, so that exposition doesn't get in the way of the actors building the actual story beneath the story.
Rob, you made a short called "Polaroid" and a Polaroid plays prominently in Host. What is it about that tech?
RS: It's the delay, isn't it? Between when you snap the pic and when it develops, and then you're hunched over it waiting for it to develop and that's a triggering thing because then you're no longer looking at whatever it is you just snapped a picture of. "Look up, you idiot!" I love that. Ti West does something brilliant with the Polaroid in The Innkeepers, which I love.
JM: And there's something about voyeurism to it, too, and the uncanny. There's something familiar and unfamiliar in seeing an image through that technology. It's not quite literal, it's not quite on the nose, it's developing and it's slow in a time where everything is so fast, so instant. Everything is now now now but a Polaroid requires patience.
RS: The thing we look for with these ideas is that it's gotta be simple enough that when you pitch it it's already innate. Like how kids will know things without you having to teach them beyond just pointing them to it, like reminding them that they're already afraid of it. The best ideas hit you in this place of familiarity, safety, domesticity, and then finding a way to let the darkness creep into that. What could be the more literal evocation of that than a picture developing in front of you and you know what you're about to see because you took the picture of it and then it develops into something that you weren't expecting. That's so simple and it's so scary.
A Nightmare on Elm Street.
RS: The prime example, the prime example. You take your safest place: sleep. The one place you're meant to be able to disengage from the nastiness of the world is in fact the place where you're at the most risk. There's something great about taking a safe thing, a familiar thing, and introducing the darkness into it. I remember The Exorcist freaked me out so much because I remember it being talked about as a cursed movie. I would be changed coming out the other side. What hit me so hard was the idea that pure evil was just upstairs in the bedroom. Like this lofty idea of evil you couldn't place into words is in this little townhouse. That really triggered me more than anything else when I was a kid.
What scares you, Jemma?
JM: Can I tell you now, what I've truly developed a fear about, is that I'll be on one of these bloody video calls and something's going to happen to me and nobody's going to help me because they'll think it's a prank? It's actually made me lonelier. Before when Rob did the prank, I laughed at first, you know, because that's the way I am, and then I'm like, okay, now someone should probably call the police because he's not moving. But after all this, after this movie and Rob pranking everyone... My greatest fear that I've newly developed is that I'm sitting here, listening to you guys talk about horror movies, and what if somebody broke in here and set me on fire and dragged me off, you guys would think that was a really cool effect and how'd I manage it? And I'm here in agony and I can't convince you that it's real.