You find yourself at home, unable to leave this once comforting place except for basic needs such as groceries, the doctor, or gods forbid, to go to work. In the supermarkets for a time we dealt with insanity and struggled to even acquire toilet paper. There are masks everywhere, a thought that once seemed to be a horror trope in itself, a dystopian necessity, but now when you see someone without one you seek to get away as fast as possible lest you catch a contagion. Thoughts of mutation and zombies occasionally cross your thoughts. We listen to incessant reports of death and infection rates, wait for restriction to lift, and instead, they increase. We are afraid perhaps, that we won’t be able to survive, not only from a disease we may catch, but from lack of livelihood, work, and purpose as we all collectively stay at home, feeling as though we are rotting away. We feel alone and isolated. We wonder if we ARE being paranoid, maybe question reality as we watch so many people disregard guidelines without seeming to suffer repercussions. Are we delusional? Is this real? Time has lost meanings as we go day to day within our same four walls and attend, mindlessly, Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. Normal life is a fading memory. Sound like a horror movie? Afraid not, we just are living through 2020, the year that so far, seems never ending.
We can likely agree that our daily lives are filled with an air of paranoia, fear and distrust these days as Corona-19 continues to spread, even as it has been beaten back, just to surge again. An unseen force, threatening our well being and our loved ones. Halloween has even been cancelled! What a heartbreak for those of us who live for the season, who want to take our families out as to play at being monsters, or to socialize as our innermost demons. Hell, we even see comedy creators bringing us satirical portrayals of these warnings we are seeing – STAY HOME! Because “HALLOWEEN IS CANCELLED”!
Quarantine moviemaking is thriving. Especially Horror.
I don’t necessarily mean the large, commercial Hollywood film industry as it continues on during the pandemic. This also doesn’t relate directly to movies about pandemics, or even about isolation. Instead, this will focus on indie movies, and those made by creatives at home, with an itch to create, working with what they can during this trying time…. On Zoom, in clever edits, in creative collaboration. The current pandemic is seeding a rich field of indie and aspiring filmmakers and story tellers to pour forth a whole slew of creations, big and small…and we are watching them. Whether we look on YouTube or TikTok, short form horror films are thriving. All over the world, no less. And, larger cinema industry influencers are noticing, too.
NPR highlights some of these efforts, with titles such as “Covid 19 Coronavirus Quar Horror” from Brazil, “Wrath” from Canada, and “Stay at Home” from here in the US, New Orleans. The range of ability and filmmaking knowledge ranges from that of complete amatuers to those with the clear influences of film school. Even locally we can find such contributions of talent, as seen in “Isolation”, an anthology that is in part led by Leominster, MA resident Nathan Crooker.
Themoonunit.com gives us a rundown of what they consider the Top 10 Quar-Horror movies, which highlights efforts such as “Screen” which features Zoom, “Lockdown 28” with overtones of Asian horror and sci-fi, and one of the most relatable…”Quarantined”.
Even Shudder, the popular streaming service that centers on the Horror genre, has stuck a toe into the waters of the current zeitgeist with the release of Host, a unique offering that clocks in at just around an hour runtime, playing on these daily issues we experience as users of the now ubiquitous Zoom…the weird sound glitches, tricks of light and shadow in the background, the “fun” backdrops gone wrong, and the bad connections that drop in and out of view, turning the simple technological problems of an overloaded network into a fearful dive into uncertainty, fear and terror.
HOST on Shudder was made ENTIRELY over Zoom. Director and co-writer Rob Savage for Shadowhouse Films takes us along on a bumpy and fragmented nightmare ride, in which we best witness to a group of friends having a little socially distanced fun over Zoom, appropriate to the season of Halloween – a séance. It features some well done stunt work (the work of Lucky 13 Action), portraying the horror of the film through a now-familiar feature of our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic – Zoom. I will give a synopsis while trying to avoid spoilers below, and assess its effectiveness.
The premise is simple: a group of six friends log on to Zoom for a video chat seance, led by the new-agey hippy spiritualist Seylan (Seylan Baxter). Nobody seems to take this particular social event seriously, other than Haley (Haley Bishop) who has organized this little gathering, and Seylan herself. Haley reveals she has done this before, and assures her friends that contact with the spirit world is indeed a real thing, and she has had these séances before, during which “things happen”. The opening immediately dropped some hints having shown us Haley’s messy closet, prone to opening spontaneously and dumping the contents onto the floor. This sets us up to wonder if Haley just has a way of attributing “spirit activity” to simple quirks of her home…or if there might already be some dark influences present due to her involvement with séances. Her friends want to have fun, to not be serious, and instead suggest that they make it a drinking game and not the serious foray into the supernatural that is presented. Against Haley’s protests to take this seriously, they do exactly that, playfully interacting, the activity peppering the dialog with light mockery and fakery meant to humor Haley and make the party laugh. The group takes a drink every time Seylan says “astral plane”, and Haley is clearly agitated. Despite this humor, we know we signed up for something horrific, and find ourselves scanning the dark and shadowed backgrounds, waiting for SOMETHING that we know is coming, which of course, builds slowly. Besides, any horror fan knows, we should NEVER take any contact with the spirits jokingly.
Soon enough we see and hear things happen…flickering lights, thumps and tapping, objects shifting without human help. We listen through periods of glitchy signals, and if you listen hard enough you might even notice a barely audible and garbled voice on Haley’s feed, hidden in the static. This waiting for things to happen sets us up effectively as the action escalates; the thumping is investigated, we see things that of course might not have really been there, until we finally see some more solid evidence in a polaroid photo. We cannot help but wonder why no one seems to immediately turn on all the lights, but we all know that is a well known trope, that victims in horror rarely do what makes sense. Dead air hisses as these incidences increase and the group begins to experience now direct interaction with the presence now untethered, as “internet problems” have cut off their spirit guide from them. Seylan’s departure was a little bit too convenient, following the first real, if quickly gone, jump scare. There is a lingering doubt left in us when she is reached by phone later and warns them that making up stories to be funny may have disrespected the spirits. We wonder if Seylan was indeed herself, after all.
Savage and co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd work well with the limits of the at-home sets, together with the efforts of equally at-home stunt people; they have managed to use editing sleight of hand to make it work as seamlessly as one can, with the added distraction of Zoom’s continued glitches and multiple view windows, pulling our eyes in multiple directions. The story culminates in a bit of a storm of increasing violence showered upon each victim, the malicious spirit being shown as taking the form that was summoned by Jemma (Jemma Moore) in her “fake out” story, first as shadows and quick creepy glimpses or a photo, then as something unseen but cleverly revealed as very much possessing a physical presence through some almost playful reveals. In some cases we can’t even see what is happening as each member of the seance falls victim to the demonic spirit, such as a cute looping background made by Caroline (Caroline Ward) that is in truth hiding her violent death from the eyes of the viewer until the last few moments. One by one they drop away, bringing it back to Haley – and Jemma, who managed to escape her home in hopes of saving Haley – as we watch them ALMOST make it before the final, and terrifying, last jumpscare reveal, just as the “free version” Zoom call times out. End credits roll cleverly in the form of Zoom’s participant list before extended credits are shown.
Much of what annoys us about using Zoom is what makes this movie fresh and effective even while utilizing plot tropes that have already been done. The use of a fake Zoom background provides a digital blindfold that is effectively terrifying, bad connections make communication disjointed and confusing at times,and sound artifacts are used to good effect. Seeing so many visual boxes with horrified faces and action creates a clash in where to look and disorientation, or when narrowed down as participants “lose connection” to only see one, or two windows, forcing our eyes to focus on the fates of the few. Each tries to remain connected to the others throughout, inexplicably continuing to carry phones and laptops around with them, providing that “found footage” feel; a jangling, erratic and unnervingly bouncy footage that is the absolute opposite of the common steady-cam we know and love. These effects are used well in adding to the chaotic moments of terror as they accelerate. The theme of being in lockdown and living in isolation truly hangs on even as this is shown to be a social event, with each alone and afraid despite friends present online to bear witness. Seylan had warned that since they were not together physically that they were, perhaps, less safe for it, even as she was trusting that she would not need to worry about disrespecting the spirits through playful fakery of Haley’s friends. That one tiny warning is what leads us straight into hell….together, but each alone and vulnerable while everyone else can only witness each atrocity in horror, as they wait for their own demise. Even as Jemma makes a break to help Haley in person, she dons a mask against the virus outside, and when she finds Haley under a desk, instead of hugging to comfort her after this trauma, they bump elbows, driving home the fact that we already life in a “new normal” that itself, carries fear and anxiety of sickness and death.
Taking in the additional knowledge that each actor also functioned as their own camera crew, special effects such as fire and demonic apparition were also done elsewhere and that stunts were done in different homes and cleverly edited together to look continuous, all within a 12 week period of time, is frankly, impressive. The idea of a “Zoom movie” itself sounds as though it is a recipe for a disaster of a movie and yet, it works, and it works WELL. Give it a watch, and try to keep the lights ON during your next Zoom hangout, just to be safe.