INTERVIEW: Jed Shepherd, co-writer HOST

“For all new horror film-makers, you don’t need film school: you need a library of horror movies”

Spoilers

Host has been heralded the most frightening film of recent years. With a boutique Blu-ray release out now from Second Sight Films co-writer Jed Shepherd sits down to discuss his Top 10 Scariest Scenes in horror, including one iconic moment from his own breakout hit…

I’ve always been a mega horror fan. It all started from the fact that growing up my mum told me that monsters were real: she’s from the Philippines, and they have a rich mythology of monsters and ghosts and how they affect everyday life. She said she saw a werewolf in London once: nothing to do with the movie.

I grew up with that in mind, knowing it wasn’t real but also thinking “if I’m going to have to deal with monsters I’d better learn about them”. So from a young age I started getting into horror films and literature, consuming every bit of horror media I could: magazines, short stories, even poetry. I think the first horror film I watched was probably Evil Dead 2, and that was the point where I thought “horror’s definitely for me – this is my genre”.

If you know horror and you consume it all the time you know the beats, so when it comes to making it you have a rich tapestry of knowledge. For all new horror film-makers, you don’t need film school: you need a library of horror movies. That’s what me and Rob (Savage, director and co-writer of Host) do – we’re just massive horror fans, we just consume so it all day every day, on VHS and every format. And I think if you do that, that’s all you need to have a foundation of what to build your film on.

HOST (2020) dir. Rob Savage – “The floating mask”

That mask is from Alice Sweet Alice, which is sometimes considered the first slasher movie: the mask’s iconic, so it’s funny that people think we made it up.

In Host me and Rob bashed out every single scare and death in 20 minutes: we just did a Zoom and were like “OK, Caroline dies like this; Haley dies like this; Emma dies like this” and then matched up the features on Zoom. Horror fans are sick of seeing the same scares again and again, so we tried to make people think they’re going to be cliched and twist them at the last minute. That’s where the fun is: making new scares out of classic tropes.

The whole sequence of Emma’s death starts at that mask. I think it’s scary because everybody knows what’s going to happen, and it’s the anticipation: you almost need it to do something in order to breathe out, and we leave it so long till it turns. You don’t want it to happen: I’ve seen reaction videos where people are like “no no no no no” and then it happens.

The other thing is we don’t use music to tell you when to be scared: you’re hearing the natural organic sounds of things in the house. For me, I think this is the creepiest moment in Host.

THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT (1999) dir. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez – “Basement”

Me and Rob have this monthly film night and we recently screened this on VHS, projected onto a big screen. It was great to see how genuinely scary it still is.

That whole end sequence when they finally get to the house has an incredible sense of doom. Again, there’s no music: all you’re hearing is something screaming that sounds half-like a little girl and half-like a pig going to the slaughter. You have the shaky cam, the child handprints on the walls, and then Heather follows Mike down to the basement and you see him in the corner. From earlier in the film you know that’s where the Blair Witch puts people: she doesn’t like them looking at her when she’s killing someone.

I watched the alternative endings the other day and this one is by far the best: there’s one where all of the wooden figures are hanging from the ceiling and Josh is also hanging in that same pose, and one where Mike’s not in the corner but standing in the middle of the room staring at her. But the end they’ve got is perfect: it’s ambiguous, simple, so effective. And cheap as well, that’s the thing: you get that much fear from something as simple as someone just standing in the corner. It’s so, so clever. I love it.

THE VANISHING / SPOORLOOS (1988) dir. George Sluizer – “Buried alive”

There’s something about The Vanishing that is pure eerie. One of the reasons it’s so effective is you feel like you could potentially be in this situation yourself: if you just kept your eye off your partner for five minutes and then they’re gone for good.

The sense of hope that’s given towards the end that’s then taken away is the scariest and most horrific thing ever: you think there’s a little sliver of hope, and then when they go for it, it’s horrible: just a sense of doom, the most downbeat ending ever, but really well filmed.

LAKE MUNGO (2008) dir. Joel Anderson – “The final 20 minutes”

When I first watched Lake Mungo about ten years ago I was so affected by it. Obviously the found footage style is something I have an affinity towards, but it’s also very simple and plays a sleight of hand: you go through the film watching these videos and seeing these photos of a daughter that died, but then you notice things are changing in the pictures, that you’re seeing the daughter appear in other bits of media. It’s freaky as hell. And then you’re presented with shots of video you’ve seen before, but if you zoom out or you pan to the side something was in that picture the entire time. It’s like at the end of The Usual Suspects, with the realization you’ve had all the puzzle pieces in front of you, you just haven’t made an effort to look at it.

And just when you think it’s the most horrific thing ever, it twists again and becomes something uplifting almost. It’s a really weird experience for a horror film to end with a sense of hope and comfort. An underrated masterpiece.

DON’T LOOK NOW (1973) dir. Nicolas Roeg – “Finale”

When I first watched Don’t Look Now I must have been about 13-14: I think it was on Channel 4, and I started watching it and was like “OK, this is cool, it’s creepy, I’ve no idea where it’s going.” All I knew was that the little girl was dead, so they can’t have seen her throughout Venice. But again, this movie does something that a lot of movies can’t do, which is have a sustained sense of dread. People sometimes shit the bed and feel like they need a moment of levity to break it up, but this is pure doom from start to finish.

It’s probably the best film about grief, and that ending is such a surprise: there’s no way you can predict it. You know something weird’s going to happen, but you never knew it’s going to be that. When you see the flashes of the blind psychic panicking and screaming and then you see the reveal – it’s crazy. Still now when I watch it I’m like “Wow: what a movie”.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) dir. Philip Kaufman – “The scream”

I just love bleak Donald Sutherland movies from the seventies, and I absolutely love Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s better than any other version of that story and it’s the best alien movie as well: it has that seventies sense of doom and dread all the way through, like hope is is futile.

Right at the end Veronica Cartwright ends up being one of the last females alive. When she sees her friend Sutherland she’s like “Hey it’s me and you against all these aliens”, and then he turns round and screams and points at her. It’s so horrifying: his eyes wide, his mouth open and her reaction of just being utterly let down: it’s bone-chilling, one of the best endings of a movie ever. Again it gives you that little sliver of hope that’s put back into the shadows: in the seventies that’s how movies were, there was that distrust of everything, probably because of Nixon. An absolute classic.

RING (1998) dir. Hideo Nakata – “Breaking the fourth wall”

We all know in Ring that if you watch the tape in seven days you’ll die, but you don’t really know how it will happen: Sadako will appear from somewhere and kill you, but until the end you don’t know the logistics.

She comes out of the well on the TV, crawls towards the screen and then steps out – and the moment she steps out of the screen there are no more rules: you’re not safe. It’s really clever, but that’s not the only great thing about the ending because after that there’s the coda where Nanako Matsushima makes a copy of the video then looks at you, through the screen, and because she’s showing it to you now you will die in seven days: she’s passed the curse to you the viewer, and that’s crazy because it’s breaking the fourth wall and makes the film real for you. That’s great, and it’s something we tried to do in Host in terms of making the viewer feel like you’re part of the Zoom call, watching it on your screen.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) dir. Roman Polanski – “The whole film”

Films of the sixties and seventies were really good at capturing doom on celluloid: I can’t think of other examples that did it so well, except maybe It Follows or The Babadook. Back then it feels like they could do it a lot better than we can now.

Rosemary’s Baby – from start to finish; even from the poster – just scares me. All credit to Mia Farrow, her performance is incredible: we really empathize with her and we’re lost and confused with her. We barely know what’s going on and we get drip-fed information like she does. As she comes to the realization of exactly what’s happening – that there’s this coven in her building that wants her to produce the son of the devil – we’re on that journey with her, and there’s a sense of fate. I think it’s in the top 10 horror movies ever: Polanski’s reputation may have tarnished it a little bit,  but what he did on Rosemary’s Baby is very hard to beat.

It’s so influential as well, like every single film from then on that involves a cult or witches is based on Rosemary’s Baby, like the Paranormal Activity and V/H/S movies in certain segments. It’s a perfect movie.

MARTYRS (2008) dir. Pascal Laugier – “The monster”

In a standard revenge movie someone’s been wronged and they go back and get revenge on the people that hurt them: with Martyrs you have another element where there’s a monster that they have to deal with as well. But what the monster represents is guilt: it’s manifested in the form of a ghoulish woman who is hell bent on destroying Lucie, but that’s the guilt she has for leaving another person behind when she escaped the clutches of this evil group who kidnap girls and abuses them. It’s really interesting how the guilt potentially drives her, but also stops at certain times.

I think the American remake of Martyrs is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It just didn’t understand that this monster isn’t a monster: for some reason it didn’t translate. But the original has so many layers. It’s one of those films that rewards re-watching as well.

NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984) dir. Thom Eberhardt – “When the Government arrives”

Night of the Comet my favourite movie of all time: it’s about these two Valley girls who are alone on Earth because a comet passed and – for various really weird reasons – didn’t affect everyone the same way: it killed most people, but some are now zombies. When I first watched it again it was a Channel 4 like 2:00 AM thing and I was like “this is my favourite movie of all time”. Everything I’ve done since has slightly been influenced by it.

The scary thing about that film is when what’s left of the government get involved. I watched it when I was quite young, and it was one of the first times I realized “Oh, the government isn’t good”. The government doesn’t want to save these girls, they want to use their blood to get the antivirus to save themselves. And even though this is made in 1984 it has that anti-establishment vibe of the seventies. It’s maybe not the scariest movie of all time, but it’s my favourite and if they ever do a remake or TV show I want to be involved.

What’s next for you?

We’ve just finished shooting our first Blumhouse movie: I can’t say too much – I can’t even say the name – but it’s exciting, more ambitious. One of the main differences is if Host was about staying inside away from the danger, this new one is about going outside for the first time and living in a world where you can’t trust everything. It won’t be too long before it’s out, because we turn these things round fast. It’s going to be really exciting to see what people think, and to see if we can break the genre again.

And then as soon as that one’s done we’re just going to start the second Blumhouse movie straight away. We’ve also got a film we’re doing with Sam Raimi, and a Studio Canal women-in-prison-horror to do as well as some other stuff that hasn’t been announced yet, so we’re keeping very busy. I think that’s what you have to do in lockdown 2021, otherwise you’ll go crazy.

One of the other things I also want to do this year is really fly the flag for British horror. I’m speaking to BIFA to try and see how they can help me influence people to take horror more seriously in the UK, because it’s incredibly difficult for horror film makers to get films made here. Me and Rob always had to go to America to get funding for our stuff, even the shorts, so if there was a little bit more money to give to horror film makers and less towards poverty porn and costume dramas, then the British film industry can be more successful as a whole So yes, making a sustainable British film industry by ingratiating horror into it is my aim for 2021.

Tim Coleman

Host is out now on a limited edition Blu-ray from Second Sight Films.

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