The story of how Host became the surprise horror hit of the lockdown has been oft-told among film fans since the Zoom-based low budget British flick arrived on the genre-based subscription service Shudder in 2020.
Its circuitous route to market has seen the film released in a number of iterations, but, with the pandemic causing all sorts of chaos at cinemas and elsewhere, it’s bucked the traditional journey – cinema, then Blu-ray, then streaming – by going first to Shudder, then wider streaming, then cinemas when there was a brief respite in the late summer and, finally, now, on to a gorgeous limited edition Blu-ray courtesy of boutique imprint Second Sight.
Director Rob Savage, the kind of horror enthusiast you’ll bump into at, say, horror events such as FrightFest, has just received his copy ahead of the Zoom call (natch) to discuss the latest instalment in the long and winding road to release.
“I just got my Second Sight Blu-ray through the post,” he says. “It stirred up a lot of memories of making the film, I watched a couple of behind the scenes features and got a bit dewy-eyed about it. I’m now back in the right frame of mind to talk about. I’ve made another movie since and my head’s been in that. But it’s nice to have this come out in a beautiful edition.”
The physical copy, for a filmmaker, is a true sign of accomplishment, as Savage notes. “Every time I go into someone’s house – and that’s been a while – the first thing I do is scan over their DVD collection. I like having the movies that shaped me right up on the shelf. And there’s a a tactility to it I love. I still love VHS.”
Savage has gone for the film-school-in-a-box option favoured by directors during the early days of disc-based formats, with an involvement in many of the wealth of special features, early shorts of his, a script treatment and more that’s included in the package. “I know how hard it is for filmmakers,” he explains, I’ve tried to demystify the whole thing, to share as much content as possible, things people might find interesting , little behind the scenes Making Of features, how we pulled off the stunts. There’s some of my short films on there. The film was an overnight thing, so it’s nice to show some of the work that’s led up to it. It’s just really nice this movie is coming out.”
Host, in which a group of young adults decide to liven up lockdown by holding a seance over Zoom, with genuinely terrifying consequences, has a touch of Blair Witch zeitgeist to it; it famously came about after Savage himself decided to liven up his own lockdown by hosting a prank Zoom call short film that suddenly found a wider audience.
“We didn’t really develop it, that was the thing,” he explains, “I pulled a horror prank, where I pretended to get eaten by a zombie on a zoom call. That went viral and on the back of that I started getting a lot of phone calls. Studios and companies said ‘there must be a longer version of this, this must be a proof of concept. I just lied to them and said we’ve got a whole feature film planned then madly scrambled to get something together.”
Shudder was one of the many interested, Savage and his team eventually plumped for the horror streamer because of the faith they showed in what was essentially only the bare bones of what became the finished film.
“Shudder was one of several people I pitched to. There was so much interest because nothing was getting made. But the pitch was really ‘you’ve just got to trust me’. That was it.
“Shudder were really gracious about giving me the controls that I needed to make the movie. The premise of the pitch was a bunch of friends do a seance on Zoom and it goes wrong and some scary stuff will happen. I don’t what that is yet, I don’t quite know how we’re going to make this movie, we’ll figure it out as we go but we need to start right now. We need to get get this movie out as fast as possible so people can watch it in lockdown.
“Shudder trusted me enough to give me a little pot of money and then left us to it.”
What Host is free from is much further interference – this is not filmmaking by committee, but a truly independently-minded outing. Shudder’s involvement was minimal, Savage notes, there was no script at first, the channel didn’t even get that, rather a one pager; there were no rushes and the director and his team even got final cut.
“They really didn’t know anything we were doing, I showed them the first cut. They gave some really good notes on, but not many and we took some of the notes and not others and sent it on. It was a really nice process. They were a great pair of eyes to have on and it wasn’t a usual studio and filmmaker relationship.”
And then, it was released. “It’s weird to release a film you’ve made in lockdown, it’s surreal releasing it during the pandemic,” he admits. “The response has been incredible The fact it’s reached such a mainstream wide audience… I thought people would be dismissive. I thought people would see it as a little exercise.”
It’s achieved every horror film’s goal of appealing both to core fans and devotees, but also crossed over to a wider audience. How did he achieve that?
“Part of that is because we weren’t thinking about it,” he says. “We were just thinking ‘what’s the most scary and fun version of this movie we can make?”’ It felt like an investment, a little reprieve from the insanity of lockdown for horror fans.”
Part of its success, Savage hints, is down to the release strategy. “We made it without the expectation that a lot of people would see it. We made it for Shudder knowing our audience would probably be this subset of quite hardcore horror fans. I’d always found it hard to imagine it ever finding mainstream attention just because of it being another streaming service, didn’t know people would come to it. It’s been a real word of mouth one.
“It’s just a movie better to watch on your own on your laptop under the quilts. It’s a very specific thing, but it really worked for us.”
Now, with cinemas reopening at some stage in potentially May, expect to see it in cinemas again (“It plays differently in a cinema, it’s a blast to watch”) and there’s the physical release too.
It’s also placed the film alongside such recent Second Sight releases George A Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead,
It’s lovely to have this film treated with care and seriousness,” Savage concludes. “We were all rushing to put it out on Shudder. It’s lovely to have an edition like this that lends it a bit of prestige. I’d never say we deserved to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dawn O The Dead, it’s a great, but it’s incredible to know we’re sitting in a shelf somewhere with Romero’s movies.”
Host is out now to buy in a limited edition Blu-ray from Second Sight.