MVP of Horror: How 'Host' director Rob Savage created the ultimate quarantine horror hit

Rob Savage is living the dream of any horror filmmaker. Make that nightmare. When Yahoo Entertainment reaches the British director behind the quarantine-era horror hit Host, he and his producer, Douglas Cox, are in the middle of their very own scary movie. While scouting spooky middle-of-nowhere locations for Savage’s next project — one of three planned features for prolific horror producer Jason Blum — the duo stumbled upon what looked like a drug deal in progress, and are currently speeding away from the scene, possibly tailed by gangsters. “We drove away really fast, and a car has been following us for awhile,” the director says, laughing. “I think we’ve lost it now, but it’s quite good that you’re calling, because at least there will be a record of it! You can dedicate this story to my memory.”

If this really is Savage’s last ride, at least he’s going out on top. Since its July 30 debut on AMC’s popular horror streaming service Shudder, Host has become a viral phenomenon in our coronavirus times. Boasting a 100 percent critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as enthusiastic social media reviews from scary movie-loving civilians, the hour-long film has emerged as the Zoom generation’s answer to Paranormal Activity. Unfolding over a single video-conference call, the film revolves around a bloody-minded spirit stalking the six tight-knit friends who have unwisely invited it into our realm via a séance session. It’s an (almost) feature-length version of a Zoom prank that Savage pulled on his own pals — many of whom are in the movie — early on during London’s COVID-19 lockdown. “I scared them with a pre-existing clip that I managed to play [during the call] without them realizing. I wanted to carry that idea into a movie.”

Even though Host’s scare factor is significantly heightened by the pandemic, Savage pointedly didn’t want to make a pandemic movie. “I don't know if anyone wants to see that for the time being,” he explains. “Everyone watched Outbreak and Contagion at the beginning of the pandemic, and I think that’s plenty. I'd be surprised if audiences started flocking towards infection horror anytime soon. We wanted Host to be a movie that was set during lockdown and reflected how we're living at the moment, but also offered a bit of escapism. It’s kind of like a horror roller coaster, where we didn't want to touch on the virus itself so much as the texture of lockdown living.”

Host may use Zoom’s interface — with the express permission of the teleconferencing company — but the majority of the movie was actually filmed on iPhones that Savage distributed to his cast. “We had them tape the phones behind the laptop, so the phone camera was pointing out right over the top of the laptop camera, and then I was on Zoom to monitor it all,” he explains. “We ended up not using any real Zoom footage in the movie at all! Bizarrely, so much work went into just making it seem like we pressed record on a Zoom call, but there's about 4,000 individual assets that we had to create and time out specifically.”

The cast of the Zoom-era horror hit, 'Host,' directed by Rob Savage (Photo: Shudder / Courtesy Everett Collection)
The cast of the Zoom-era horror hit, 'Host,' directed by Rob Savage (Photo: Shudder / Courtesy Everett Collection)

In classic horror movie tradition, Host starts quietly and then builds to a frenzy of paranormal violence. But the shoot itself happened in reverse, with Savage remotely directing all of the big scary stunts upfront. “We had access to a house that was filled with stunt performers and stunt coordinators that were all isolating together,” he remembers. “A lot of the stunts were doubled, with hidden cuts between the actors’ houses and the stunt performers’ houses.”

That approach meant that the production was able to abide by England’s quarantine restrictions, although those guidelines loosened enough during shooting that the stunt performers were eventually able to visit the actors’ houses, under the supervision of an on-set medic who took temperature checks and ensured that everyone remained socially distanced. “There was never any direct contact,” Savage says. “We found creative ways to make sure everyone was safe. For example, the actors’ partners would be the ones to rig them into their stunt suits.”

Those stunts have been wowing horror fans with their potent mixture of old-school practical effects and digital assists. Early on in the film, the host of the doomed Zoom call, Haley (Haley Bishop), is dragged backwards in her chair by the malevolent spirit — a tease of what’s to come. “I’d love to take credit for that, but Haley pitched that to us,” Savage says. “She just sent me this video of her sitting at her desk, and all of a sudden she gets pulled back and slammed against the wall. Her boyfriend had some climbing ropes, and they tied it around the chair and figured it out themselves. We based the whole turn into the second act around that moment.” (Bishop’s boyfriend — or more accurately, his elbow — makes a cameo towards the end of the film, standing in for the elbow of a friend who comes to check on Haley. “That’s why she’s got a really big, thick arm for one moment,” he says, chuckling.)

Related: New horror film 'Host' filmed mostly on Zoom

In another scene, nervous Caroline (Caroline Ward) has her head repeatedly bashed against her computer’s keyboard, her bloody face periodically breaking through a Zoom background that shows her in happier times. “Caroline was sent all these prosthetic pieces by our special effects guy, Dan Martin, and had a Zoom tutorial about how to apply them. For the stunt, she slammed her head down into a little pillow that sat on top of her keyboard a couple of times, and then we’d pause and she’d apply the next part of the prosthetic — a broken nose or a slash on her face. We spent almost a whole day slowly building up that prosthetic and getting all the bits we needed for that sequence.”

Two of the more complicated, and freaky, on-screen deaths were performed by Edward Linard and Jinny Lofthouse, the only stunt performers who also have speaking roles in the movie. Lifted into the air by the rampaging spirit, Lofthouse’s neck is broken and then she drops into a swimming pool. “We were able to rig a kind of goalpost over the pool, so she’s lifted up by a wire and there’s a quick release. When we pressed a button, she plummets.” Meanwhile, her on-screen boyfriend is set on fire — a stunt that Linard happens to specialize in. “We hired him, because we knew we could set his face on fire,” Savage says, laughing. “But none of the cast knew that he was qualified to do that! So when we set his face on fire in front of them, they were genuinely freaked out and didn’t know what was going on.”

Emma Louise Webb gets a spooky makeover in 'Host' (Photo: Shudder / Courtesy Everett Collection)
Emma Louise Webb gets a spooky makeover in 'Host' (Photo: Shudder / Courtesy Everett Collection)

In fact, Savage purposely kept the cast in the dark about all of the scary stuff they’d be seeing, mimicking the original prank video he made. “We filmed all the death scenes individually, so they had not idea what was going to happen to any of the other cast members. Later on, I was able to go on a group call with all of them, and then pump that footage back into the Zoom call without them realizing they were watching pre-recorded footage. Their reactions as a group were often totally authentic: those are mostly first-take reactions to the crazy stunts we managed to pull off.”

Of course, there were times where their reactions weren’t shocked enough. One sequence that proved particularly problematic was the big reveal of the spirit’s “face” — actually a mask that Savage swiped from the cult 1976 slasher film Alice, Sweet Alice. “I always loved the mask in that,” he says, referring to the translucent mask worn by the film’s titular killer, played by Paula Sheppard. “Not enough people have seen the film, so I figured I could steal it without anyone noticing. They did, of course, but we’d already gotten away with it scot-free by then! The funny thing is that our VFX guy had to go into the Lens Creator app that exists with Instagram and make it as a fully-functional Instagram filter, so I think you can still find it on Instagram somewhere.”

The mask from 'Alice, Sweet Alice' worn by Paula Sheppard makes a memorable cameo appearance in 'Host' (Photo: Everett Collection)
The mask from 'Alice, Sweet Alice' worn by Paula Sheppard makes a memorable cameo appearance in 'Host' (Photo: Everett Collection)

Because that particular visual effect was accomplished in post-production, the cast didn’t have the benefit of reacting to Savage’s deep-cut homage. “They were reacting to an empty space, and I was on the Zoom call saying, ‘The mask is turning now, and it’s terrifying,’ and making nosies. It never quite worked, and we had to piece the scene together from a lot of micro reactions drawn from different takes.”

Another tough-to-film scene between Haley and her friend Jemma (Jemma Moore) — whose flippant attitude towards the séance opens the door for the spirit to walk through — didn’t make the final cut at all. “Right before Haley gets dragged into the darkness towards the end, there was meant to be a much more emotional confrontation between her and Jemma where we dig into the backstory a bit about where their beef comes from. It felt like too much of a movie moment; we shot it a bunch of different times, but then I cut it and I never missed it. I think when you’re being chased by a murderous demon, that’s not the time for unspoken feelings!”

As evidenced by his terrifying location-scouting trip, Savage won’t have to stay inside his house to make his first Blumhouse feature, but he’s still planning on carrying over some of the lessons he learned on Host to future projects. “The big realization was that not being in the same physical space together ended up being a benefit. Shooting everything remotely meant that anyone with a working internet connection could suddenly be part of our movie, and we were able to work with collaborators who never would have been free if the industry was up and running. Like when that light bulb explodes in one of the girls’ apartments, that was actually filmed miles away on the other end of the country by a special-effects person. And then an hour later, I was able to drop it into the film. I think that’s really exciting — it opens the world up.”

Host is currently streaming on Shudder.

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