Double Feature

Strange Days August 11, 2020


On Host and She Dies Tomorrow

host of the group, Haley (Haley Bishop), thinks it would be fun if she and her friends took part in a remote séance. She has hired a professional medium, Seylan (Seylan Baxter), to help guide them. Haley, the most earnest of this jokey bunch, implores her pals before Seylan gets on the call to be respectful: If they’re going to do this right, they’ve got to follow this spiritualist’s instructions to a T.


Of course, this group will not; some members can't even stop themselves from discreetly taking a shot when someone says "astral plane." It’s this goofy disobedience that makes it possible, Seylan says later on the movie, for demonic entities, apparently, to temporarily enter the mortal realm.


Host was shot over Zoom (it’s as visually tetchy as any remote business meeting) and unfolds with machine-like predictability. Its first half is spent building the rapport between the characters, who in this short run-time do come across to us as good friends, and the rest constitutes their being terrorized by a shadowy, apparently omniscient force. Jump scares come in droves but are well-earned; Host has lots of instances of my favorite kind of shot in all of the found-footage horror subgenre. A recording device (in this case either an iPhone or a laptop) is dropped by its owner; then, from the floor's purview, we watch helplessly as its owner gets either attacked and mortally wounded or attacked and killed by some being.


Host isn’t the first thriller to take place entirely on a computer screen. Such was already done (and with mainstream success) years ago with Unfriended (2014), which was profitable enough to get a sequel in 2018, and Searching (2018), which, while mostly adhering to computer-screen-thriller “rules,” did feature a handful of cutaways to forbidden "other" screens. Host doesn’t tread very much new ground. But its many novelties give it somewhat of an edge. It’s one thing to get a feature-length movie that so directly invokes the pandemic so soon into the year; one can’t help but laugh when one character, seeing that a person off screen might be in danger, quickly puts on an N95 face mask before bolting out their front door. Playing with demons is good and fine, but messing with a deadly virus is a step too far. It’s another to so effectively recreate the general anxieties and discomforts of being suaded into and then participating in a Zoom call: the inescapable glitchy delays; the unnaturalness that thwarts any sense of intimacy; the dismay that creeps in when you can sense that your speaking companion is doing something else on their laptop screen, rendering you secondary. 


Closer to the beginning of the pandemic, invites to Zoom hangouts with friends and co-workers came in more steadily than in-person meet-ups had pre-pandemic. I went to a few, but after some time I started pretty uniformly rejecting big-group remote gatherings. They are so often unavoidably riddled with communication difficulties that I could never fully let loose and relax. In Host, no one lets loose either; spicing up Zoom-meeting banalities proves to be a cardinal mistake. As characters are unavoidably picked off one by one toward the end of the film, I also couldn’t help but think of the realities of the pandemic going on outside, and how relentlessly it has similarly, and unceremoniously, taken away peoples’ loved ones. But, of course, that was part of the intention. When you act blasé about a deadly unknown in Host, you have to pay the price. Your mistake can cost others, too. An on-the-nose allegory, certainly, but still an efficiently placed one.


Co-writer-director Rob Savage first got the idea to make the movie after pranking some people earlier this year. He was on a Zoom call with a group of friends while rummaging around for something in the attic (he’d ostensibly heard some noises beforehand). Little did they know that he planned ahead of time to have something pop out at them on screen mid-call. Their freak-outs were captured for posterity. Savage’s mischief, when published, got noticed. When he realized that Zoom and horror could be pretty successfully married, he conceived of Host.


With his assembly of young no-name actors, whom he virtually directed and whom he helped map out stunt work, Savage doesn’t rise above the found-footage form necessarily. But he has still made a horror movie capturing its era well enough to potentially get it looked at as a sort of benchmark in the future. Many have speculated what most movie and television offerings will look like when the well of stuff created pre-pandemic has run dry. Host gives us one idea.

From 2020's Host.

because it’s especially excellent, not taking into account the fact that cinematic offerings in 2020 are pretty few and far between as is, but because it so explicitly — and cleverly — addresses the year’s defining trait: the takeover of the coronavirus. This wickedly simple thriller sees a group of 20-somethings, all quarantining at home, participating in a Zoom call. This meet-up, presumably one of many they’ve had in the course of the few months of lockdown (the film is set in an unspecified pocket of the U.K.), is an unusual one, though — one that will inevitably go somewhere horrific. The 


ost (2020), a 56-minute-long thriller that recently became available to stream on Shudder, might be the year’s definitive horror movie. Not

From 2020's "Host."


n Amy Seimetz's second directing effort, She Dies Tomorrow (2020), a disease is also being transmitted. (Her acting paycheck for 2019’s Pet Sematary funded the project.) It isn’t the coronavirus, though: it’s

something mistier, even more unknowable, but on the face of it less deadly. As suggested in this indirect, reticent movie, an infected person is stricken with an overwhelming feeling that they will die within the next 24 hours. We are first introduced to one of its apparent sufferers, recovering alcoholic Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who has just moved into a new house. We see the spread begin when she calls her friend Jane (Jane Adams) and speaks of her deadly feeling. Jane then goes to her sister-in-law’s (Katie Aselton) birthday party — you can see where this is going.


Seimetz came up with the film’s concept after seeing how people reacted when she described a recent anxiety attack she’d had, suggesting that her merely sharing her experience manifested into a quasi-tipping point. This original conception is made clearer in the film by the way the majority of the movie’s characters are indicated to have already been having emotional crises before being infected. This surge of new anxiety therefore affects them far more than a typical empathetic listening session would.


Released on video on demand in late July (the movie was originally set to debut at the South by Southwest festival in March), She Dies Tomorrow, having been released in the middle of a pandemic and international unrest over police brutality and anti-Black racism, now has an attached 

prescience. Although Seimetz wasn't seeking to make something so timely, the film now unwittingly strikes the viewer as a needle-sharp allegory for a very-specific kind of anxiety had in 2020 — where a feeling of impending doom is as overpowering as it is omnipresent. The feeling grows the more you talk about it with others, the more you dwell in it.


She Dies Tomorrow soundly builds an atmosphere of dread; its unnerving enigma never falters. That said, the film is detrimentally dramatically uninvolving — more a great concept embellished with plenty of style that goes nowhere, really, outside of its tenor of foreboding. You wait for it to stop wallowing in its unease, move somewhere that feels more consequential. It's zombie-ish — sluggishly aimless. Then again, its domineering sense of mystery evidently 

wasn’t accidental. Because can there be a catharsis here? 



She Dies TomorrowB-