Sickhouse (2016)

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threehalfstar

I’m a huge sucker for throwaway details from internet-specific visual palettes being employed in my cheap genre cinema. Titles like Unfriended, Nerve, #horror, and Beware the Slenderman have all incorporated bullshit, disposable internet imagery in their visual aesthetic to terrorize audiences with social media alarmism in a way that feels fresh & fascinating to me, making for some of my favorite cinematic experiences in the past few years. I honestly believe that these films, although instantly dated, will serve as a great time capsule of where our culture is currently at mentally & spiritually a few decades down the line, the way slashers defined the 80s & torture porn ruled the 00s. The dirt cheap, smart phone-filmed found footage horror Sickhouse joins the recent trend of social media-obsessed genre cinema by pushing its premise even further into verisimilitude. Released over three days last Spring via a series of posts on the Snapchat app, this hour-long cheapie actively participates in the social media platform it openly condemns. By adopting the format of its critical target right down to its mode of release, Sickhouse emerges feeling like a newly exciting filmmaking innovation, despite easy complaints that could be lobbed its way in terms of narrative ambition. Admittedly, the film doesn’t stray too far from its Blair Witch But With Snapchat premise in any narrative sense, but as an experiment in genre film technique, that formula was more than enough to generate some interesting results, especially for those as enamored as I am with films like Unfriended and Nerve.

“Have you ever seen The Blair Witch Project?” A character bluntly asks his fellow teens this blatantly silly question over a campfire, knowing full well that they’ve already been living the exact plot of that late-90s milestone. A handful of young, overconfident fools venture into the woods to investigate an urban legend about a haunted house, documenting their every move with an ever-present smartphone. Like with Blair Witch, their dialogue is mostly improvised, one character is blamed for getting the whole crew hopelessly lost, and there’s an excess of extratextual material backing up the central folklore to make it feel legitimate (visitsickhouse.com). According to that smokescreen website’s account of the True Events, the titular Sickhouse has three defining rules: 1) Don’t make any noise, 2) Don’t go inside, 3) Leave a gift on the porch. Like with Blair Witch, our dumb teen protagonists turn their noses up at genuine engagement with the local legend, laughing off the danger of the scenario and breaking every single rule set before them. Also like Blair Witch, they’re punished within the house they clearly should have avoided venturing inside in the first place, but there is no gore or violent end shown onscreen. Anyone looking for more than a brief flash of a face or a hand from the teens’ supernatural tormentors is going to be disappointed by what’s delivered. The film instead attempts to creep the audience out through pure folklore & mythology. Have I mentioned The Blair Witch Project enough to get the general vibe & narrative of the film across? Because it’s exactly like Blair Witch.

What’s most important here is form, not content. Sickhouse is shot entirely through the rectangular aspect ratio of a vertical smartphone video. Onscreen text & MS Paint quality doodles overlay the imagery in the way most Snapchat videos would be hastily edited. Because shots cannot extend past 10 seconds in length due to Snapchat’s formatting, the film finds kinetic energy in a never-ending series of rapid fire shots. Characters philosophize about the nature of Snapchat and social media at large at length. When our smartphone-toting protagonist is admonished for posting too often, she’s told, “Snapchat’s not a documentary. It’s just . . . stuff.” As an audience, we all know that it’s carefully curated “stuff,” though. Even when the two girls that drive the plot are sleeping, camping, or running for their lives in a haunted house, they’re always wearing make-up and always attempting to choose the most flattering angles for their omni-present faces. One of those two girls is played by *shudder* “YouTube personality” Andrea Russet, who brings a kind of authentically false persona to the role of a narcissistic brat who obsessively cultivates online fans, but will also chide friends for using their phones too often. Russet’s real life YouTube Channel features bafflingly popular videos with inane titles like, “Dying My Hair Purple,” “Cuddling With My Ex-Boyfriend,” and “My Morning Routine,” so her onscreen presence, as painfully inauthentic as it feels, actually has a lot of credibility to it that makes Sickhouse feels as close to the genuine thing as possible.

I’m not convinced writer-director Hannah MacPherson knows exactly what to do with all of this internet age narcissism & over-sharing except to represent it onscreen. There’s nothing to Sickhouse‘s social media themes that are explored too far beyond maybe a character ironically declaring, “Social media is a plague” while obsessively uploading short-form videos to Snapchat or a few online “followers” becoming stalker-level followers in a much more literal, physical sense. Still, the way MacPherson applies the visual & narrative techniques of broadcasting a curated personal aesthetic on social media to a standard obnoxious teens getting punished for smoking weed & having sex horror structure make for some really exciting results. I have my own stray complaints about some of her individual choices (the ending could’ve been more jarring, the third act body horror of the teens becoming ill could’ve been pushed further, there really was no need for any non-diegetic music), but for the most part I was delighted & energized by what she pulls off here. Many will brush off Sickhouse as a gimmick, an act of frivolity, but I think it’s secretly a doorway to the future of filmmaking. Not the long-term future, mind you, but certainly what’s soon to come. Even Sickhouse‘s phone screen aspect ratio makes it feel as if you’re peeking in on the film through a doorway and that space-conscious tension allows for an unnerving feeling in images like a mangled deer or a well-arranged still life of “gifts” left on the titular house’s porch. That won’t be enough of a payoff for everyone who tunes in, but I at the very least found it to be an entertaining experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

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