Many years from now, when coronavirus has (hopefully) passed and social-distancing is but a mere memory, how will we look back on this time? ‘Netflix and takeaways on the sofa’ doesn’t make for the best fireside story, of course, so most of us won’t have much to tell the grandkids. But for filmmaker Jed Shepherd and actor Emma Louise Webb, COVID-19 might end up being the thing that kickstarted their movie careers.
Taking its cues from found-footage classics like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, indie horror Host is the year’s biggest surprise hit. Set and filmed entirely during lockdown, the plot is simple: a group of friends try to alleviate their boredom by conducting an online séance via Zoom. After one participant dares to mock the online ritual, an invisible demon downloads itself into each of their homes and begins separate, savage attacks leading to gruesome on-screen deaths.
In addition to the physical scares via impressive stunt work and special effects, Host also taps into a deeply-rooted psychological fear we have all experienced: the feeling of being watched in your own home. Add to that a rare all-female cast of fast-rising talent and the Shudder Original could be the standard bearer for a new wave of British horror filmmakers.
Writer and producer Jed Shepherd, a rising star in horror who previously collaborated with rock band Ash on their budget film Slashed (starring Moby, Dave Grohl and Chris Martin), says the idea for the film came from a practical joke.
“It actually all started with a prank video that Rob Savage, the director, did on our friends,” he tells NME, fittingly, via Zoom. “We have a WhatsApp group called the ‘Quarantine Movie Club’ and Rob was prodding us every day for four weeks: ‘There’s a noise in my loft!’ And we’re like ‘Go up there then! Take us and show us!’
“He set it up so his phone, which was [streaming live] on Zoom, jumped quickly to his laptop screen which showed a [scary moment] from [2007 horror film] REC of a zombie boy jumping out. Then the screen jumped back to him falling down the steps and [pretend] dying,” explains Shepherd. “I was like, ‘They’re never going to fall for it’ but they really did!’ laughs Jed. “Someone put it on LAD Bible and it got about seven million views in the space of three or four days!”
Sensing an opportunity, both writer and director started to develop the prank into a full-blown feature. “It was 4.33am and it just came to me. I texted [Rob] two words: ‘Zoom séance’. Then I went to sleep,” says Shepherd. “A few hours later he texted back and just said: ‘Yes! That’s what I’m pitching to Shudder!’”
The simple, two-word premise was all that was needed to convince the horror streaming platform to allocate funding. Producers also agreed, due to social-distancing restrictions, that Rob and Jed could cast their friends in lead roles. That’s where Emma Louise Webb, emerging south London actress, came in.
“We’re really lucky that we have a group of mates that do film,” says Emma, who plays one of the six friends to take part in the séance. Hiring their pals also helped speed up production, as Jed explains: “[There was] no audition process obviously because we speak to these people every single day.”
Initial research for Host saw cast and crew take part in genuine online séances that directly influenced what ended up in the movie, including losing their video connection with the medium – and actor Jemma Moore encountering a genuine poltergeist. Jed, however, remains sceptical.
“Jemma had an experience whereby she felt something touch her and then a book flew off her shelf and slammed really hard,” he says. “We have it recorded as well. And then afterwards, we were talking about it and I was thinking: ‘Maybe Jemma is just really clever, and she did that because she knew [seance] was almost like an audition’.”
When they eventually started production, the team worked at breakneck speed. They self-imposed a deadline – and wrote the screenplay and shot every scene in just 12 weeks using the actors’ own equipment.
“We taped iPhones just behind the laptop using Velcro,” reveals Emma. “It was slightly more than a Zoom call, but it felt pretty DIY.” Jed adds: “Emma could never get the angle of her phone right on her laptop, that’s why she’s [sat] with her eyes poking out a lot of the time.”
After being cooped up for so long, the ‘Quarantine Movie Club’ was eager to face the challenges of filming, if only to break the boredom of being alone and isolated. Taking direction over the phone and drip-feeding redacted scripts online to keep the entire plot a secret even from the cast, each actor developed the sinister story individually in their own homes.
“Being in my bedroom was quite weird because on one hand you literally roll out of bed,” says Emma. “But on the other hand you have to keep your room as it was and you have to take care of continuity.”
Despite the lockdown limitations, Host’s effects work looks convincing. Stunt doubles Jinny and Anna (“They took the bruises so I didn’t have to” says Emma) proved invaluable. They shot the more dangerous scenes first so that the rest of the cast could watch live – and the camera could catch their shocked reactions.
“I was obsessed with two things: levitation and fire,” says Jed. “When Emma is seeing Teddy on fire, that’s her real reaction to seeing a new friend being set alight.”
“When you [act to a] screen, you don’t have anything to react to, it’s all imagination,” says Emma. “But [this time], it was happening right there. You normally only get that in theatres. When I was watching it back I could see the glow of the fire on my face, it’s that intense.”
Normally, actors get to relax after production wraps, but thanks to the ultra-realistic stunt work and creepy reality of the script – it all felt a bit too close to home. “Sometimes I’m trying to sleep, and I look at my doorway and I’m like…” Emma says, before pulling a worried face. “I have to sleep with the light on because it’s actually quite scary.”
Luckily, all of the hard work and anxiety has paid off – Host is one of 2020’s biggest word-of-mouth hits. “[It’s] the number one film on [movie social media platform] Letterboxd, it’s 100% on Rotten Tomatoes which is ridiculous,” says Jed. “They’re obsessed with Emma. They keep posting memes!” Pleasantly surprised with the newfound international attention, Emma says: “I keep getting messages from the Philippines, Argentina, Japan. I’m like: ‘I didn’t even know it went out there!’”
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But what has prompted such an intense global response? “I think people find it cathartic,” says Emma. “I think, especially at the moment, people are like: ‘Oh it’s a different kind of nightmare.’ It’s like an escape a little bit, isn’t it? They think: ‘My life isn’t great but that’s definitely worse.’”
For Jed, Host is more than just a creepy pandemic flick designed to keep people occupied for an hour so they forget the bleak reality of COVID-living. Instead, it’s a record of his own experience – proof that something good came out of this whole thing. “I want people to see a group of friends who were bored in lockdown and made a movie together,” he says. “In years to come, I want people to ask us the question: ‘Oh what did you do in this crazy time of history?’ And I can just send them the link.”