Be Careful What You Take In: Rob Savage’s Host

Some films are a product of their times or, if you’d like to pardon the pun, the Zeitgeist: the Spirit of the times. This is definitely the case of this Shudder Original film Host. Host is a film directed by Rob Savage, co-written by both Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd, and its one of those cinematic narratives created in the fear-soaked environment of the pandemic: of COVID-19.

It takes the form of a Zoom call, in which six young people decide to have a seance with a medium online to pass the time. Obviously, this turns out to be an excellent life — and afterlife — decision as these things go.

The conference call seems be on a Macintosh Apple computer based on all the colourful buttons, and the Zoom platform itself transitions between the different windows of the users involved as a six-panel screen format, and sometimes a single screen when the story needs to focus on one character. It feels like a call, like you are in the chatroom seeing people get invited in, and having little glimpses into their quarantine lives. It feels like an epistolary fictional narrative, only live. There are no letters, journal entries, transcripts, or even texts but if you take it as a recording of the situation you see these different narratives united under one theme. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Host is a found footage film, arguably a cinematic descendant of the epistolary, that feels as though it is live: that it is happening as you watch it.

Unlike The Tribe Murders, another short Zoom-modeled film that, in the words of H.P. Lovecraft “is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax,” there is no disclaimer at the beginning telling you that this happened because, very simply, it is happening as you watch it. There is no past-tense here. Only the eternal, oppressive, over-present.

The pacing of the film is excellent. You have six friends brought together in different places holing up against the pandemic, going about their lives as best they can and under different circumstances, while talking about their lives, and sometimes even gossiping about each other beyond their backs before coming onto the screen. You know it’s the beginning of the end when the six characters can’t take the seance seriously, and try make a drinking game from hearing the words “astral plane” from the medium who so graciously offers to guide them through the ritual.

Strangely Seylan the medium herself as she guides the characters — who are, for the most part, irreverent — brings a feeling of tranquility, even ASMR to the chat with her voice, her calm instructions, and her gentle manner. It makes the tense worse because you know that despite the previous joviality, the latter is a false serenity, a deceptive sense of security. Slow-burning stories or, Hitchcock’s “anticipation of the bang” happen this way. The manifestations of everything that goes wrong are planted in subtle images or distortions, little visual and audio feints and red-herrings, but ultimately the tragedy begins from a sense of utter irreverence against an invisible force that the Zoom participants have vastly underestimated. By the time things get serious, the effects are simply extensions of the infection that has already been growing, its signs already there, the connections not cut away in time.

There is a lot of that language in here. There are at least two themes in Host, not including the title as well. It had only been towards the end of the film that I realized it, and began to think about these elements. The first is the togetherness yet distance of the Internet. A Zoom call, like Skype before it, brings people together while being spatially distant. Seylan goes out of her way to tell each participant to visualize a connected string to their doors should they want to terminate communication with any spirit: kind of like how you would stop a Zoom call. At the same time, even the medium has to think about how to adapt her ritual to an online forum: which she has never done before. Usually, the rite involves physical touch and more direct guidance from the medium or spiritual expert in question: in far more tactile, tangible, and ritualistically secure settings.

To be honest, while some characters are practical jokers, I think in a lot of ways the character of Seylan is the most irresponsible: starting these young people on a potentially dangerous activity, and then leaving them to get a package, and not following up when her Zoom call gets dropped. She also doesn’t consider actually encouraging the characters to have physical elements beyond candles to help them have something material to ground themselves into the ritual. Sometimes, for all the information the Internet has, online existence loses something from the offline world in translation, and this disconnect can make all the difference.

At the same time, when you utilize the Internet as a medium to communicate and you don’t follow the right protocols or you disable privacy, or take it for granted, anyone or anything can be seeing or listening in on what you do. In this sense, this is both a twenty-first century cautionary tale, and an element from the entirely timeless folklore of human hubris.

The Internet and the spiritual intersect in another sense. You need to be careful about what information you broadcast, or put out there. In this case, it’s a falsehood — a story — told by one user that ends up becoming a mask, an anonymous persona, for an unwanted, malicious guest.

This feeds into the film’s other theme, the more implicit one. While the dangers of the Internet and that feeling of connection conflicting with detachment and disconnect are there and the characters operate in that background of life as usual while struggling against global despair, the pandemic itself is another major part of the story.

Remember what I’ve said about the Zeitgeist. If F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu serves as an artistic attempt to exorcise the demons of World War I in Germany, if the jinn in Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow represent the darkness of the Iran-Iraq War and Iran’s fundamentalist patriarchy, and if Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and José Villarrubia’s comic Infidel deal with the forces of xenophobia in contemporary America as ghosts feeding off hatred, I think there is something to be said about Host and its status as a piece of horror symbolizing the fear of the pandemic.

It is no coincidence that it’s due to the actions of the characters in underestimating the powers of unseen forces to the naked eye, and downplaying manifestations — or symptoms — of the supernatural that everything begins to unravel. In fact, it’s only one of the characters, Jemma, who brings a false narrative — or a false positive — into the procedure out of boredom that their spiritual, and material spaces are compromised by a hostile, foreign agent. One of the characters, Radina, looks pale and sick before the seance begins. Jemma claims to feel a tremendous pressure on her neck, making it hard for her to breathe. Everyone involved doesn’t even consider the other people in their spaces, not participating in the spiritual activity but still present: and how they put them at risk.

Haley is the only one of the characters aside from the medium who she brought into the Zoom call that takes the entire situation seriously, but it’s too late as she’s been exposed to the break in their neutral safe space. Caroline’s Zoom background of herself eternally repeating the same mundane task, a hope to return back to normal, plays as she is brutally possessed and murdered: life going on after being taken by something for which she hadn’t prepared herself. This looped background becomes something of a mockery for the group, for the normalcy they will never have again, that will never cover up the horror they now understand. Even Emma, who is hiding to her last breath, under her blanket — perhaps symbolizing her former ignorance, a flimsy safety — knows the terror that lurks outside, and that will get her now that she’s let it in: and there is nothing she can do about it. There is no cure for this plague they let into their lives.

Jemma herself hastily grabs a medical mask before fleeing her space, barely even getting it on her nose which one needs to have in order to have some protection against the virus. However, even though she ends up putting it back on, it gets knocked off: as if to say it’s already too late for her, and for Haley whose place she breaks into in order to get some protection from this infection. Of course, it’s too late for all of them as, one by one in both in full knowledge and unknowing they watch each other fall — separated — into absolute helplessness: all because of the mistakes of a few.

The film itself, aside from its jump scares — feints and special effects-wise — especially at the end, are fairly predictable, though I was always wondering who would die first. And there is something about a childhood fear in the form of a music box with a limited time span, with something of a timer — much like the one at the corner of the Zoom platform that needs to be upgraded monetarily — that hits home the fear that permeates our world now. It’s just my read that the demon summoned on this Zoom call is a metaphor. The spectres of World War I, the spirits of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the hungry ghosts of xenophobia and hatred in contemporary Trump era New York, all them would be in good company with this unseen demon — borrowing the tools of our online culture, misinformation and terror — that will consume us if we underestimate it, or ignore it, or pretend that we’ve banished it when we know that we haven’t, when we don’t listen to the experts, when the experts themselves don’t even know the full implications of its adaptation, and we let it in.

When you take this read of Host into consideration, you realize that it doesn’t just mean the facilitation of a Zoom call with privacy that doesn’t exist as is examined in The Tribe Murders, or a chatroom, forum, or platform without moderators that can get hacked by entities revealing secrets and spreading lies. Rather, a host is a person who sometimes takes an unwanted guest into themselves, thinking they are safe or non-existent: and both they, and everyone around watches their space get taken over, and they pay the price. That is the fear I feel that Host plays on, and with, and this — combined with how it presents its aesthetic all the way to the credits being a list of participants in the Zoom call itself (almost all them having the same first names as their characters, by the way) — is nothing short of something terrifyingly beautiful, a prime example of imminent horror, and it should be considered a classic of our time.

Behind My Son of Shadows

Nothing ever goes according to plan. This is especially true in the mad science known as creative writing.

I’d been planning to place something within the Reanimation Station for quite some time, to take apart and rewrite an old film and make it into a more coherent story. There have been some smaller, minor experiments before that point: splicing Society and They Live, looking at alternative story ideas and possible narrative execution derived from Cannibal Holocaust, From Beyond, and even Hogzilla, and outright creating a short continuation or epilogue to Crimson Peak.

But this wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Before undertaking this Project, without a hope for financial compensation and only out of the perverted goodness of my black heart, I needed to attempt something … larger.

‎Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness is not a bad film, though it isn’t as well known as it should be. In fact, it is a great movie. But, as most homage and fanfiction writers do, I wondered what would have happened if it had gone … differently.

It all began with the premise: what if Stefan, who claimed to be the heir to Chilton Manor, told his new wife Valerie the truth about his phone call back home, and what he truly wanted out of her?

I’d already seen the film twice, but that wasn’t enough. The first Phase of my process was reading up on the movie, on the characters, and even some basic thoughts from critics and its director. I also thought it useful to fill in some gaps about Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess of Hungary, herself. I knew that in order to make the story compelling, I needed to consider what each character was thinking and feeling beyond how their movements and facial expressions are telegraphed in the film.

But even before all of this, I’d already decided that the story was going to be two scenes: the first being the aftermath of Stefan telling Valerie the truth and him meeting Ilona Harczy in the honeymoon suite as per the usual proceedings of the film, and then the Countess Elizabeth Bathory also coming into the room to talk with Stefan privately, and confront him over the knowledge of what he really is.

It sounds simple, right? The film works well not just because of its turns in lush and austere aesthetics, but also due to what it doesn’t show or say. I know that ascribing clear meaning or explanations to things from the film wouldn’t work as they are not in the film. That is a personal rule of mine. If I am going to work in someone else’s playground I am either only going to play with the toys they’ve left behind, or take note of those items and bring some that potentially complement them.

For example, there are a few references to Elizabeth Bathory, and I did place some Dracula allusions into the narrative as well. What’s fascinating is that from Bathory, and Vlad Tepes came in no small part influence for how the image of the vampire is depicted in the literary arts. Yet Dracula isn’t necessarily Vlad Tepes, and the historical Elizabeth Bathory isn’t a vampire. It is the ideas of these legends based off history and folklore, these created identities that are the most fascinating elements to me. They are fictional personas masking something else entirely, another concept or truth that ultimately gets revealed while saying very little about their concrete origins. And if you have watched Daughters of Darkness, you also know that this applies to Stefan to some extent as well: in that he too is a construct over another, darker truth that gets realized one way in the film, and I attempt to reveal in another in my own derivative narrative.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be sparse with little bits of ornamentation changed into something else in the operating theatre of my writer’s mind. The truth of what happened with Stefan and Valerie in my narrative, in contrast to the film, was going to be slowly revealed and only touched upon: kind of like how the characters in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” talk about abortion without being blunt or direct about it.

But if we are going to go into literary influences that aided me in building on, and understanding this cinematic narrative, I would also mention Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: a novella that deals with homoerotic and queer undertones along with the dissolution of a morality and mind obsessed with possessing youth and beauty. Ostend in Belgium, while not Venice, Italy still has some of the architectural and ornamental tradition that mirrors the latter.

There is definitely a Continental European literary influence over Daughters of Darkness, especially in seduction and love as a passionate force that destroys bourgeoisie mentality — a middle-class mindset — and that life itself.

My alternate ending idea changed, however, when Ilona Harczy wanted more “screen time” in the narrative. To elaborate, she spoke to me. One thing that I’ve seen online is that different reviews of Daughters of Darkness ascribe a variety of perspectives to the film. But what they all seem to agree on, or most of them, is that the women — the vampires — are lesbians. It does seem that Elizabeth and Ilona are in a hierarchical lesbian power exchange relationship, especially accentuated by the fact that Elizabeth is the vampire that made or sired Ilona: compelling her with what seems to be a bond. And towards the end of the film, Valerie is influenced by that same magnetism. But I think there are complexities there that are more than just a black and white sense of sexuality, or even gender understanding.

Ilona, to me, wanted to leave the worn down, exhausting relationship she has with her domineering partner, still hungry for blood herself but also for companionship with someone other than Elizabeth, maybe even a temporary reprieve from her own sense of unhappiness. She is a mirror to Stefan in that he too trying to run from his own responsibilities, wanting to embrace his hungers, his appetites but only able to make excuses to attempt to escape the inevitable as well. Neither character is happy, and in this derivative construction of mine, I wanted to make it clear that they know this on one level: even if it is lost in translation between them.

I was content to let Ilona have her time with Stefan, but then a new challenge arose. You see, I really liked — love — Kümel’s dialogue. There are some lines in his film that I just wanted to exist in this alternate ending that was quickly becoming an alternative chapter. It began with Stefan and Ilona, and then after Ilona’s limited third-person narrative, I had to go back to Valerie and see what her interaction with the Countess would be like.

Valerie runs away, this time from the verbal truth and not the visceral, punitive corporeal punishment that Stefan utilizes against her in his sense of thwarted ambition — of being the subordinate instead of the master as he thinks a man should be — and the Countess finds her. I didn’t want to reveal too much about what happened, or what was said otherwise there is that fear of repetition in the narrative. A lot of the lines still worked, especially when applied to Valerie realizing that Stefan’s sadistic desires, and his sexuality are not what she expected: or the truth about his home life.

I think where I had to be really careful was attempting to get to the third-person limited perspective of the Countess. Whereas Valeris is a central protagonist in the film and much about her own development is already made clear to the point it being dangerous repetition, Elizabeth Bathory needs remain more of an opaque, yet open mystery. You can, and you should, read between the lines. She has seen it all. In fact, she has done it all. When you look at her interaction with Stefan in the film, you see they have a lot in common. The difference? The Countess reached the point where she can enact these desires. Stefan has not.

I was thinking about character motivations and dynamics. I considered the fact that Elizabeth would like to travel around a great deal, not just because the Bathory family lost their land ages after the Blood Countess’ house arrest and death, but also because if she had been entombed alive in her own home, she wouldn’t want to stay in one place for too long. It would terrify the hell out of her, which is why she needs to move around so much, and how she came to the hotel at Ostend again. At the same time, the Countess is old. It’s said that it is never polite to speculate on a lady’s age, but when you see Elizabeth interact with others, in the way she moves, or looks at them, or smiles it really does feel like she is ethereal, that she is attempting to remember how to affect human mannerisms and emotion when the only real feelings she channels anymore are disaffection and hunger. She’s jaded and tired, and while Ilona is desperate to feel something else — anything — Elizabeth has particular tastes and likes to take incredible risks.

I added even more literary references, especially from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The historical Elizabeth Bathory, who apparently suffered seizures and some say actually bathed in the blood of healthy innocents to stop them, was also a highly literate young girl who speak Latin and ancient Greek. She was smart, and if the Countess of this film is her, or descended from her, or bases herself off her, I can see her comparing her idea of love to Satan, Death, and Sin. I know that it’s Mary Shelley who makes references to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein, but it just suits the Gothic environment crafted in Daughters in Darkness.

Writing this has been challenging. Imagine filming, and the conceit that a lot of the work in film is post-production: in the editing room. So consider finding a complete and excellent film, a masterpiece, and cutting apart pieces of it, and splicing together dialogue into different spaces, with words that are your own and might possibly complement the original dialogue: while something new. That’s what I attempted to do here.

However, and this is important, I didn’t want to destroy the themes of the film. A part of me wonders, even now, if making this ending focused on Stefan doesn’t defeat the purpose of the film, or go against the natures of the characters involved. Certainly, I can’t deny that I changed its trajectory and emphasis on women while, at the same time I feel like it still explores those elements amongst power dynamics, and the questions of eros, and freewill.

Let me just say: rewatching the film again, and going through various scenes and their dialogue made me truly appreciate the detail and layers, the nuances, in the narrative. Elizabeth is calculating, but she isn’t all-knowing. She just knows how to adapt like, in Kümel’s words to Mark Gatniss in Horror Europa, any good “demagogue.” Elizabeth is a casual opportunist, and while she seems to have preferences towards Valerie, for what seem to be similar reasons as Stefan’s, she doesn’t rule him out either. I think what gets me is her speech to Valerie in the film about what men want from women, sexually and kink-wise, and all the while you begin to realize that when Elizabeth is talking about what Valerie is expected to do for Stefan, she is really wanting Valerie to undertake these actions for her. In a way, Elizabeth is projecting her needs and desires on Stefan and men to introduce them, or define them, for Valerie. She is basically manipulating and grooming her away from Stefan after their violent encounter in the film.

In my story, it is a longer game, but Elizabeth does use the situation to win Valerie’s trust and take advantage of her vulnerability. What happens when someone is young and in love and invests this whole energy into a risky business of a person that doesn’t pay off, or turn out the way they think? They panic, and seek someone who knows, or seems to know what the deal might be. And while Stefan does have Dominant, and sadistic tendencies, he does share in the fact that he is bisexual — just as the female characters all seem to be. In the film, he associates gender with a power dynamic: he is a submissive or subordinate partner to his male partner at Chilton Manor, while he chafes under as he has other needs, and inherently believes that a man should be dominant over a woman. That chauvinism is there. However, in the scene in the lounge he does give into the Countess’ sensual domination — whether supernatural, or not.

Elizabeth can read Stefan. You can also interpret this as she talked with Valerie about him. And when someone trying to still feel something, to keep experiencing pleasure, can get more than one good thing, they will. Stefan has the tendencies towards sadism, but Elizabeth has learned it, and it is telling that he calls his partner in England “Mother” but the film Elizabeth wraps her arms around him, and in my fiction she ends up taking the control that he wants to give.

There are other elements that I didn’t plan that turned out well, such as Ilona’s eventual fate. I’ve been reading Clive Barker’s Imajica recently, and the novel begins with a theory of fiction in which there is only room for “three players” in a narrative: be they characters, or themes and three it becomes: though whether or not it will become two, then one like in the film isn’t clear by the end of my narrative. This riff or modification of Aristotle’s Poetics aside, it works out well, especially in using the Chekhov’s gun objects from the film: the razor that Stefan accidentally cuts himself with at the beginning of the story, and Ilona’s pearl necklace. The first item had already been there, and gets used in a different way in the film whereas I worked the necklace in differently.

Originally, I was going to have Ilona drop the necklace when leaving Stefan and Valerie’s honeymoon suite:

In her haste, in her stride to leave, Ilona drops the pearl necklace onto the floor. It snaps, spilling every ivory bead, each one rolling away, releasing them into the shadows gathered under the bed. 

However, there is no way she would have accidentally destroyed that necklace. It is a good image, and excellent foreshadowing, but I found a place where it fits far better, and used more than it was in the film. I had even used a third-person limited Stefan perspective that I didn’t end up using where he compares Ilona’s teeth to the pearls:

Stefan feels her watching him as he showers.

The weight of what happened before, with Valerie, hasn’t left him. Something, after Ilona however, feels more coiled. He turns around to see her. In the light of the bathroom, he sees her luscious lips, parted, and her teeth — paler than the pearls that were around her neck, dashed onto the floor like the rest of the room by his hand — exposed.

It is a good paragraph, as well, but in the end I used Ilona’s perspective instead and moved the pearls reference downward, and then away from there to her denouement in the bathtub of her’s and Elizabeth’s suite.

I don’t really know what else to add to this behind the scenes, or backstage look at my literary homage to Daughters of Darkness except I think that if I had to explain how the title works beyond it being a gender-bent version of the English title, it would go a little something like this.

Basically, Stefan who claims to be from Chilton Manor is part of an unofficial and illegal relationship with a more powerful man who stays in his estate and calls himself “Mother.” Valerie wants to protect him and be his wife but she’s basically young and with little substance beyond what she can become. Ilona, who seduces him, is dressed in black and wishes to be free, already resigned to what happens to her with moments of defiance — like him — and when she touches his face and hair, she almost seems to see a reflection of herself except so much younger. And Elizabeth, who plays with him and his wife, is an older feminine version of what he is, and what he could be. But like the shadow of shadows, he is always going to be tethered to something: his partner, his idea of what a man should be, the Countess, his sexual desires, and his unacknowledged needs. Originally, I was going to have the story end where he and Valerie almost touch fingers after the Countess claims them, after he is turned on the memory of Ilona’s final fate. But I needed to have Elizabeth behind them with, yes, that gimmicky black raincoat that looks like a vampire cape or the wings of a bat. It mirrors what Valerie, or the form of Valerie, does at the end of the film with that couple she meets after this is all said and done.

Stefan may have a different existence in this story, in this alternate ending, but he is still a shadow. He is still subordinate to someone else. He is still a slave to his passions. The difference? He knows it now. And he has died for them: just in a different way.

I hope liked this look into the bloody mess of my creative process, and that I will see you all for the next experiment.