EVIL is in the Waiting Room. “Host” reviewed! (Second Sight Films / Blu-ray Screener)

Six friends, locked down due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, hold a séance with a medium over a video chat platform.  With some skeptical of the astral plane practice and connivingly mock the ritual without aware of the consequences, they unwittingly call forth a false spirit under the guise of their seemingly harmless mockery.  In short, a malevolent demon crosses over their spiritual internet connection plane, attaching itself to their domicile surroundings.  Unable to break the connection to the spirit world, surviving a night that was supposed to shoulder quarantine boredom with excitement and booze has beleaguered the friends with a night of undisclosed deadly terror.

When online game night during quarantine life goes horribly wrong in Rob Savage’s “Host.”  The UK bred survival tech-horror is the sophomore feature length film from Savage who co-wrote the cast sundered script with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd, who has previously collaborated with Savage on the director’s short films, “Salt” and “Dawn of the Deaf.”  “Host” plays into being a film of the moment, shot entirely over the pandemic lockdown with unconventional production direction conducted through video chat platforms with each actor pent-up performing in their own personal abode and being subjected to wear multiple crew hats to avoid spreading COVID-19 from face-to-face interactions.  Despite the severe limited enforced by the threat of infection and the local governmental mandates, the film received hefty financial backing from horror’s most prolific streaming service Shudder after director Rob Savage pulls off a video chat prank with colleagues and friends of him checking out a mysterious sound in his antic and seamlessly interlacing a jump scare clip from Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s “REC” that scared the bejesus out of the unsuspecting participants to his prank.  “Host” is a production of Shadowhouse Films. 

“Host” stars five real life friends, aspiring actresses in the London area looking for work that has become frighteningly scarce in the pandemic’s wake, and they’re joined by a sixth, the outlier male to join the virtual hangout session.  To add authenticity to the circumstances, each actress has their parent-given (or stage-made?) names incorporated into the film, heightening the illusion of a friend being ripped apart by a demonic entity, especially if a sly Rob Savage redacts much of the script to keep his actors in the dark in certain scenes to garner real reactions.  Haley Bishop, who has worked previously with Savage on “Dawn of the Dead,” spearheads the nighttime gathering for a little séance fun, to stave boredom with her closest friends, with prearranged invitations to Jemma Moore (“Doom:  Annihiliation”), Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, and Edward Linard, who is the only one of the six not to use his actual name and goes by Teddy.  Each character provides a slight unique viewpoint that integrates into the story nicely, such as Jemme’s jokester and cavalier attitude, Caroline’s bracing for the supernatural consequences, Radina’s distracted relationship troubles, and Teddy’s wild and carefree persona.  “Host” rounds out with minor co-stars enveloped into the séance chaos, including Alan Emrys, Patrick Ward, Jinny Lofthouse, and “Double Date’s” James Swanton as the malevolent spirit.

Cyber and social media horror has no leverage to be groundbreaking horror anymore as a handful of these subgenre jaunts slip into our visual feeds every year in the last decade and “Host,” on the surface, might perpetuate the long line of outputted tech horror in an overcrowded market.  However, “Host” has a beauty about it that doesn’t reach into capitalistic territories like the ill-conceived “Corona Zombies” from Full Moon or the Michael Bay-produced “Songbird” about sustaining love in the time of dystopian pandemic and, instead, redefines how tech horror not only uses innovated methods in creating movies during lockdown but how the knuckle white and teeth chattering terror is perceived in the reinvention of the ominous presence that has found its way through the fiber optic cables and into our cyber lives not in the context of a social media obsessed society but in a quarantine-forced one that brings a whole unique set of isolation fears and complications.  While the characters try to form a much desired human interaction the best way that they can through internet video chats, they’re also connected by the spiritual circle that has engulfed the apart, but together, connection, sparking a palpable atmosphere of mass fear together.  Audiences will be pulled into this fear being visually privy to Haley desktop screen, that’s not quite tipping into the found footage field, as she helms control of the video chat that quickly spirals into a Zoom-screen of death as one-by-one each friend succumbs to the unwittily summoned demon.  Rob Savage has reformed the tech horror genre much like George Romero had revamped the zombie on not so much a social commentary level, but vitalizing new life into it, making “Host” a game-changer in horror. 

While I wasn’t lucky enough to review Second Sight Film’s Limited Edition Blu-ray Boxset of Rob Savage’s “Host,” dropping today, February 22nd in the United Kingdom, housed in a rigid slipcase with illustrated artwork from Thomas Walker with an original story outline booklet, new essays from Ella Kemp and Rich Johnson, and 6 collectible art cards inside, I was graciously provided a BD-R that included the film as well as the bonus content.  The region B, PAL encoded, just under an hour runtime film, clocking at 57 minutes, is nearly shot entirely on Zoom that melds in the position of negative space inside tightly confined camera optics and plays right into the hands of dark spots that the optics can’t entirely define, leaving the space void in a blanket of inky black.  From video to audio, the sound design meshes the natural auditory blights that would conventionally spoil audio tracks for the sound department, but Savage and Calum Sample found the mic static or the distorted or near cancelation of sound during a high pitched screams added elements of grounded fear rooted by technology to where people can relate to when having their own video chat technical difficulties during meetings or such while also playing into the theme with funny face filters, augmented backgrounds, and the bells and whistles of the platform. Second Sight’s slew of special features for this limited edition boxset includes exclusive commentaries with director Rob Savage, producer Douglas Cox, and the cast, cast interviews about their individual takes on the film, a behind-the-scenes feature, Rob Savage’s group prank video that sowed the seed for the film, the same prank done on a single individual, Kate, Rob Savage’s short films – “Dawn of the Deaf” and “Salt,” the actual Séance held by the cast, crew, and a real life medium, a British Film Institute Q&A with the director, Gemma Hurley, Jed Shepherd, Douglas Cox, Haley Bishop, Brenna Rangott, and Caroline Ward, and an evolution of horror interview with cast and crew. The best horror movie of 2020 now has the best release of 2021 from Second Sight Films; “Host” logons to be the heart clutching video call from hell.

Own “Host” on Limited Edition Blu-ray Boxset from Second Sight Films by clicking the poster!

Never Had An EVIL Friend Like Me! “Come Play” reviewed! (Focus Features / Digital Screener)

Elementary student Oliver has autism that impedes his speech, requiring near obsessive use of the phone and tablet to communicate with touchtone words as well as using the device for recreational binge watching of SpongeBob SquarePants to calm him when agitated.  Unable to make friends, Oliver’s loneliness causes him to sink deeper into his devices while his parents bicker amongst themselves on the endless topic of caring, treating, and assisting with Oliver’s needs, such as speech therapy and daily routine.  On another dimensional plane, looking inside-out of Oliver’s devices, is Larry, an equally lonely, misunderstood monster trying to break into Oliver’s world and take him away to be forever friends.  It’s up to his overprotective mother and insouciant father to stop Larry’s aggressively desperate out reach into Oliver’s world and pluck him forever from a life of being misunderstood. 

Forget the monsters lying in wait underneath the bed!  Forget the monsters lurking inside the dark closet!  The monster in your phone, capturing your attention span on a glossy-eyed level, should be the monster we all fear from Jacob Chase’s written and directed tech creature feature, “Come Play.”  “Come Play” introduces Jacob Chase into feature filmmaking after being involved wearing multiple hats in a series of short films, spanning over in the last decade and half, with his 5-minute long short film, “Larry,” plotted out as one third shift bored parking lot attendant who discovers an abandoned iPad inside the lost and found box located in his booth and releases a disfigured titular creature that lumbers toward him after reading through  “The Misunderstood Monster” children’s tale on the device, becoming the foundational work inspiring a 96 minute, fully fleshed out narrative with dangerous undercurrents of voyeurism and loneliness coinciding with an equally-hazardous theme in the detriments of being a helicopter parent, hindering the independent growth and maturity of youth. “Come Play” is a co-production of Amblin and Reliance Entertainment.

When they’re in a career hot zone, child actors flourish and grow inside a broad base of horror, being nurtured either from or by the creepy child sub-category or from or by being the unlikely hero that has the save the oblivious adults (just look at the kiddie cast of “Stranger Thingsfor example). Azhy Robertson falls into the latter as the epitome of innocence in playing Oliver, a young boy with autism unable to communicate clearly the monster stalking him from a stratum between two existences. “Marriage Story’s” Robertson continues to gleam versatilely as an actor who can use his imagination to not only react to a rendered behemoth creature but also submerse into the characteristics of autism and not oversell beyond what’s needed. Robertson also continues his girth toward a well-rounded career that now has a notch for horror under his broadening belt. Like many monster-plagued kid horror, the parents are always oblivious and dismissive to the situation and “Come Play” continues the trope with a pair of quarrelling parents in the midst of separation that undoubtedly adds to the extramundane energy fueling Larry’s need for Oliver. Gillian Jacobs (“Bad Milo”) and John Gallaghar Jr. (“Underwater”) butt heads sorely on one topic: Oliver. As their marriage dissolves through unspoken subtleties under the Oliver epicenter, that missed mightier connection could have been more powerful on how the split up affects the reactionary consequences of Oliver’s developmental disorder, an affect so tremendous that it componentizes Larry and his aggressive and brazen abduction tactics that are not so discreet. However there characters are perceived, Jacobs and Gallaghar modestly pack a punch in what has been laid to be the Azhy Robertson show of a vulnerable, yet smart, child versus a relentless and grotesque monster. Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, and Eboni Booth round out the cast.

Jacob Chase has proven to be able to handle building breath-holding suspense and tension with the otherworldly plane Larry, a Slenderman-like in appearance and character inspired villain lumbering around not only in Oliver’s house, coursing through the electrical currents in his sub-plane world, but also by peering from out of closets, shying away in the darkest corners of the house, and looming around in a parking lot’s graveyard shift hours only to be perceptible through the phone and tablet camera lenses and, at times, manifesting a translucent presence that has force behind, the latter being an added side dish, transcending from Chase’s short film, to Larry’s predacious tech-manipulating arsenal when obstacles stand in the way of his BFF.  Even if “Come Play’s” superlative thrills ride on the heels of potent jump scares and unnerving silence with bated breathed, hiccups do arise in a more alleviated roller-coaster that shreds holes into the well-established terror instead of nurturing the tone.  Now while I understand the rating is PG-13 to secure a wider audience and, maybe, be a little lighthearted at times, an awkward diluted dread douses the credibility of the characters in strife with actions, such a scene include Oliver’s parents striking down upon his tablet with alternating hammer blows.  In what almost seems like a joke with an archaic technique that old-timey railroad workers use when nailing in track spikes or when carnies – one being a clown – hammer in spokes in unison to erect the big top, the scene is just out of focus in regards to the rest of the scope and there are other scenes like these sprinkled in throughout that raises character quandary concerns.  Why not just one parent whack away on the destruction of the dag’on device?  A handful of the reactionary actions to protect Oliver are glazed with an unreasonable, panic-stricken defense that begs the question whether they’re fit to actually be parents, which, if looking on the flipside of the argument, might also play into more of the unbeneficial family structure that originated the Larry intrusion.  Speaking of originating and the monster, Larry’s exact origins is obscured from the audiences as no plot points touch in depth upon Larry’s background and, you know what, that’s okay here; the more mysterious path is sometimes the best and, in “Come Play,” Larry’s inexplicable being as a child seducing abductor relates much more frighteningly and unfortunately in real world occurrences. 

Predators come in all shapes and sizes.  In this case, Larry’s atrocious presence, trying to obscure his real identity innately, symbolizes the very personalities of the real monstrous predators living among us, trolling online to prey on the vulnerable.  “Come Play” is an oxymoronic subtle hyperbole that serves as a cautionary warning for parents and children molded with pure monster in the closet entertainment in mind releasing theatrically on October 30, pushed from its original July release due to COVID-19, courtesy of Focus Features.  Serving as director to photographer is French cinematographer and serial shadow worker, Maxime Alexandre, who was worked with acclaimed horror director Alexandre Aja on “High Tension,” “P2,” and “Crawl.”  Alexandra manipulates the space, melding wide, full and closeups, to work the perceptions toward a post-production visual design in adding Larry into the frames and honing in on the lighting to just show enough of the space to make the allusion of Larry’s presence even more ominous. The back and forth of the underused practical Larry and the mostly CGI Larry sparsely have any difference between the final product outcome. The visual effects team of Mr. X saunter with what could have been a clear disaster of composite creature imagery with all the trademarks of synthetic splicing; instead, Larry matches well to the point of an indistinguishable challenge between what’s real and what’s not. The score by the “Don’t Breathe” and “Evil Dead” remake’s Roque Banos does the job to subversively infiltrate the security earmuffs to wring your cochlea to an inch of its life, but doesn’t resonate with you much more than the length of the film; however, Larry’s clicking and snapping of his appendageal joints and his guttural clatters emanate vicinity apprehension, as if the audiences can hear the dun dun hook as a tall tale sign of a circling shark in the water.  Sound design is half the fun in the film as the monster is more than half there when it’s on screen. No bonus material accompanied the release and there were no bonus scenes during or after the credits, but I’ve included Chase’s short, “Larry,” below for your own comparison and enjoyment!  “Come Play” boosts many unsavory themes between the parameters of technology and children underneath a mask of a faceless friend willing to frighten and fight anyone into submission to obtain complete, domineering companionship to end his chilling fairytale story.

Larry: Short Film

The Cycle of Life Can Be EVIL. “Vivarium” reviewed! (Screener/Vertigo Releasing)


Gemma and Tom are a happily in love young couple who are looking to purchase a starter home. They visit a real-estate agency for a brand new housing development called Yonder. Met by a strange and persuasive real-estate agent, they’re convinced to follow the unusual agent to tour the neighborhood that has been marketed as the family forever home with everything they could ever need and want. A row upon row of identical houses and yards go as far as the eye can see and before the tour of the rather ordinary house number 9 ends, Gemma and Tom find themselves alone inside with the bizarre agent gone. Their efforts to leave the mysterious residential suburbia proves impossible as each turn leads them back to house number 9. When a box containing a baby boy is left at the doorstep with a note to raise the child to be released, the young couple reluctantly reside into domestic confinement.

Vivarium defined is an enclosure, container, or structure adapted prepared for keeping animals under seminatural conditions for observation or study or as pets, like an aquarium or a terrarium. “Vivarium,” the 2019 movie, embraces the definition, twisted into an idiosyncratic neighborhood block of duplicity from the “Without Name” director, Lorcan Finnegan. Story concept is flushed out by Finnegan and “Vivarium’” credited screenwriter, Garret Stanley, in their second collaboration for the director’s sophomore feature endeavor that’s a panicking puzzle in every square foot of Yonder’s backwards backyard. The film resonates with echoes of Finnegan and Stanley’s seminal short film, “Foxes,” from 2012, revolving around a couple living in a remote and forgotten housing development and become drowning in obsession, madness, and malaise as shrieking foxes surround their isolated home. There’s an equating animalistic instinct to each film that brandishes many of the same motifs as well as joining themes that are corralled in Finnegan’s copious foreboding and disconnecting dehumanization narrative. “Vivarium” is produced by XYZ Films (“Tusk”), Fantastic Films (“Stitches”), PingPong Film, and Frakas Productions (“Raw”).

The happy, young love birds are played by Imogen Poots (“Green Room” and “Black Christmas” 2019 released remake), who has an underlining affinity for not typecasting herself in the same role, and Jesse Eisenberg (“Cursed” and “Zombieland”), who manages to step a foot outside his conventional performance of a rattle mouth, know-it-all. However, Eisenberg deserves the praise of a man with severed ties from reality as the actor embraces a reserved manic by channeling Tom’s obsessive need to dig, an aspect of his handyman profession he’s good at in perhaps providing an escape from cage-less confinement, and being the bearer of skepticism of caring for an abnormal child. Gemma has complications of her own confronting her educator responsibilities for young children. She struggles with internal conflict, does she still use her innate care and instruct a young mind or in self-preservation, take Tom’s passive aggressive approach? Poots and Eisenberg share a mutual, caring bond that defines Gemma and Tom kind of steady, kind of loose relationship that gradually devolves civilly, like the amicable breakdown of a marriage revealing lost, but not forgotten love between two people. Along with the surreal atmosphere, “Vivarium” grades well in the creepy kid department with the child in Tom and Gemma care, but don’t even bother giving a name. Dubbed with a playful man’s voice, a shrill scream ignited by displeasure, a knack for imitating, and always dressed in Sunday’s best, Senan Jennings’ middle aged boy presence is a supernova of chilling proportions with a performance that gives his co-stars a run for their money while Eanna Hardwicke is equally spasmodic and creepy as the grown up, young man version of the boy with a little more alienating know-how and clandestine about his origins.

Finnegan and Stanley pursue thought-provoking substance of human corporeal limitations and how we, as humans, cycle through them with such cavalier ease. The opening scenes examples this with the practice of the common cuckoo laying their mimicry egg inside the nests of other birds. As a brood parasite amongst birds, the cuckoo egg hatches and the cuckoo chick pushes out the mother birds’ inborn chicks and becomes the sole chick in the nest with the surrogate mother tending to the cuckoo’s dietary needs. When the cuckoo is matured, it is grossly larger than the mother bird and, also, mimics the bird species to an extent, much in the same way of the boy or young man Gemma and Tom surrogate as being the unintended mimicry that infiltrates and ousts the limitations of his foster parents. Finnegan and Stanley also explore the parental lifecycle with the theme that our children will replace us, extend our legacy, but we will ultimately be forgotten. “Vivarium’s” craft dictates a larger scale, disproportionate, otherworld teemed with secret subterranean corridors leading to other disturbing observatory immures, making for a stimulating meta-induced terrarium as we watch miniature versions of Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots suffer inside a screen from the comfort of our couch.

If you’re stuck at home, living the quarantine life you’ve always wanted, “Vivarium” may just break of your introverted stance on home with it’s “Black Mirror” and “Twilight Zone” encouragement. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vertigo Releasing and Wildcard Distribution released film has circulated digital only on the following platforms in the UK: iTunes/Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Google Play, Rakuten, BT, Playstation, Microsoft, Curzon Home Cinema, and BFI Player. Unfortunately, I will not be able to comment or critique of the audio, video, or bonus features of this release due to the varying elements of a digital screener. Novel, suspenseful, and a great film to brood over, yet difficult envisaging, “Vivarium” truly resembles slithers of somber dimensions of an upside world with lashings of surveillance paranoia.

Amazon Prime Video is one way to watch! Rent or Buy “Vivarium” with Prime Video