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Of the handful of films that — incredibly — managed to be conceived, developed, shot and even released during the pandemic last year, one stands out from pack as having not just been a critical smash but launching a career in the process.
Host, from British writer-director Rob Savage, was a hugely inventive display of what could be achieved under lockdown with extremely limited resources: a horror film that plays out on Zoom as a group of quarantining friends hold an online séance, accidentally unleashing a demonic spirit that begins knocking them off one by one.
Almost 15 months on from its July 2020 release on Shudder, the AMC Networks-owned streamer, the film still retains a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 90 reviews, praised for offering genuine scares through a distinctly contemporary setting.
And while Host continues to attract fans (it’s a film “best viewed at home on your laptop,” claims Savage), its 29-year-old director is now preparing for the BFI London Film Festival’s U.K. premiere of his follow-up, Dashcam, which had its world premiere in Toronto last month. A (slightly) more traditionally made found-footage genre feature, although one still set during lockdown, Dashcam follows two friends on what is described as a “fucked-up horror road trip as they live-stream the most terrifying night of their lives.” It’s also the first film from a three-picture deal Savage signed with Blumhouse in the wake of Host’s success.
Previously best known for the microbudget feature Strings, which he wrote and directed at 17 years old and which won the Raindance Award at the 2012 British Independent Film Awards, Savage admits that he’s become something of a “pandemic profiteer.”
“It’s just me and the billionaires,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. But this capitalizing on the crisis came about — at least initially — entirely by creative accident, and via a route that may well end up in horror filmmaking folklore.
Having moved into a new apartment about a year before the coronavirus crisis unfolded in early 2020, Savage had begun hearing weird sounds and creaking footsteps coming from the attic above his bedroom, the only place he didn’t have immediate access to. He initially brushed it off, but when the lockdown hit and he couldn’t leave, he suddenly began to worry that he might be living below an ax murderer. This wasn’t — of course — the case, as he discovered when he eventually climbed up to the hatch to check it out. But it did present him with an idea.
“I’d been telling my friends about these noises, and I figured that it was a good excuse to play a prank,” he says. “So I got everyone together on a Zoom call and told them that I’m going to investigate the strange sound.”
What Savage’s group of friends saw on their screens wasn’t, however, live. Instead, he was sneakily showing them a prerecorded video on his phone; an intricately made short film that showed him ascending a ladder before seemingly being attacked by a zombie-like creature after peering inside the attic (actually a clip taken from the 2007 Spanish found footage horror film [Rec] he had seamlessly spliced with his own footage). It ends with Savage crashing to the ground and lying motionless.
As pranks go, it was as elaborate as it was effective (as can been seen by the expressions on his friend’s faces, unsure what they’ve just witnessed). Thankfully, many of them had recorded the whole Zoom call and, sensing he had something, Savage edited together the clips to make a tense two-minute horror, featuring the shocked responses as well as his own original film.
I’ve been hearing strange noises from my attic, so I called a few friends and went to investigate… pic.twitter.com/CxmJAf44ob
— Rob Savage (@DirRobSavage) April 21, 2020
On April 21, 2020, less than a month into the U.K.’s first lockdown, he put the video on social media. The internet soon did what it does best.
“It was just this silly little thing to keep myself entertained, but I put it online and it kind of went low-key viral,” he says. But while the video was racking up the hits and being shared on several major websites, the conversation very quickly turned to adapting this unique Zoom horror format into a full-length feature.
“We got a bunch of people asking if it was a proof of concept for a larger feature, and as any filmmaker will tell you, when you get asked that question you say yes,” says Savage.
Together with his producing partner, Jed Shepherd, he concocted an idea that would work over a feature-length film but through the same Zoom-based medium. Now armed with several million online views of the original short, Savage and Shepherd began pitching it around, eventually choosing genre specialist Shudder.
“They basically gave us the controls to make this movie very fast,” he recalls, adding that he was given a budget of around $100,000. “All of which was spent — I wanted it to be more impressive than people would imagine for a lockdown movie, to go a bit further than they were prepared for.”
With the U.K. still under strict quarantine measures as COVID-19 swept across the country, the six-day shoot — using many of the same friends in the original and with much being improvised based off the film’s treatment — was done entirely remotely, with Savage never in the same room as his cast (“I never even got dressed!” he says). Keeping with the quarantine precautions, for an off-Zoom point-of-view shot toward the end of the film, a castmember’s boyfriend did the filming.
From having the idea for Host, to shooting and editing it, to it landing on the Shudder platform, Savage estimates was around three months. “We finished two days before its release,” he says. “We literally were tweaking it right up until the finish line and put it out with no trailer.”
Much like the prank short, Host — arguably the very first “quarantine horror” film — soon became a word-of-mouth hit, its timing perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of a world in crisis and stuck at home.
“People started watching it and realizing that it wasn’t a piece of shit and began to tell their friends,” says Savage.
But it wasn’t just the genre community getting excited, with the film being hailed by the likes of Good Morning America and other mainstream media outlets (The New York Times described it as a horror movie that “speaks to our moment of uncertainty”). It also helped Shudder attract record audiences, with the platform breaking the 1 million-subscriber mark shortly after Host’s release. In terms of breakouts, it immediately put Savage on the map.
Dashcam, as it happens, was the film Savage had wanted to make before the pandemic (although he admits it “changed a lot based on what we’d learned from Host”). But where there may not have been much interest before, thanks to Host there certainly was now.
“Our pitch was basically that me and the team who made Host — a very tight-knit group of people all instrumental in making the film work — were on a creative roll and wanted to move straight into another movie and shoot,” he says. “And we wanted to do it in a similar way to Host — shoot off the treatment and improvise a lot of it.”
Of all the interested parties, Savage claims Blumhouse came out the strongest, offering a three-picture deal.
“Blumhouse are the kings of horror, and I’ve always wanted to work with them and thought that making a follow-up with them would be a hell of a statement,” he says. “And they were true to their word — we were able to make this movie in the same way we made Host.”
Although Savage admits he had more resources for Dashcam, he says it’s still a “super low-budget” film, made using similar lo-fi methods but this time on location (almost entirely in the U.K. but with a couple of scenes in L.A.) and predominantly shot by the cast on iPhones with no director of photography. It does, however, come with the not-inconsiderable force of Jason Blum listed as producer.
And, like Host, it somehow manages to reflect the times of its creation, filmed as the 2020 U.S. presidential election was playing out and edited during the storming of the U.S. Capitol building in January 2021.
“If Host is a very quiet, ‘I’m alone in the house by myself’ kind of movie, this is everyone yelling, nothing getting heard — the angry discourse movie that just adds to the cacophony,” he says. “In the same way that Host is really about planting a flag and saying, ‘This is what it’s like being in lockdown during 2020,’ Dashcam is doing the same but in a different way. It’s trying to be like, ‘This is how people were feeling and interacting with each other at this time.'”
A distribution deal for Dashcam is reportedly close to being signed, with Savage saying he hopes there’s a “big theatrical component” (Host actually released in cinemas in a number of territories where Shudder doesn’t operate). “But this is a film to be seen with an audience — I think it plays very differently at home on your own.”
With two films in the bag in just 18 months, Savage’s next move is to rest and take stock.
“I want to make sure that the next Blumhouse movie — which is the same budget, it’s the same deal across all three films — is the kind of the thing that nobody else would let me make under any circumstance,” he says. “It’s got to be something unique that earns its place.”
But Blumhouse isn’t the only one to take advantage of Savage’s fast-rising horror credentials. Last year it was revealed he was working with StudioCanal on a female-fronted supernatural thriller billed as “The Conjuring behind bars,” while he’s also teaming with genre maestro Sam Raimi on another — as-yet untitled — supernatural horror, which Raimi will produce and will be set in just one location. Both of these were born out of original ideas by Savage and Shepherd.
And while he admits that he’s keen to up the ante with vast budgets and resources at his disposal, Savage claims he’s just as content to remain in the lo-fi genre world.
“I’d obviously love to do something bigger and have all the toys, but I’m equally happy doing ketchup blood horror with my friends,” he says. “It’s all the same to me.”
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