In the horror movie Sickhouse, a familiar narrative unfolds: A bunch of teens decide they want to look into some urban legend, then head to the woods in search of it. Terror ensues; teens make out and die; and the whole thing is caught on shaky, handheld camera, blurring the perception of fact into the vehicle of fiction.
None of this is revolutionary; we’ve been seeing movies of this sort since before The Blair Witch Project mainstreamed the format in 1999. But Sickhouse does mark what could be a major sea change in the annals of horror. Before it became a 68-minute feature available for download on Vimeo, it was uploaded in 10-second clips to lead actress Andrea Russett’s Snapchat account, @andwizzle, while it was shot entirely with iPhones over the course of five days. Russett is a YouTube celebrity, and since she has 2.5 million subscribers on YouTube and hundreds of thousands on Snapchat, that sound you hear is the cash register ringing in executives’ dollar-sign eyeballs.
Written and directed by filmmaker Hannah Macpherson — who has mostly made shorts but also worked in the casting department on movies such as True Grit and The Book of Eli — Sickhouse unabashedly leverages Russett’s social media footprint. Watching it now as a finished product, it’s impossible to separate the movie from its origins as a series of snaps that were viewed over 100 million times: It’s still broken up into those chunks and defined by the language of Snapchat, including drawings and text on the screen, self-targeted camera angles, and abrupt shifts of perspective and context.
As a movie, then, it isn’t exactly The Exorcist, and not just because of the Snapchat-native bells and whistles. The narrative is erratic and half-formed, the iconography is cheap and clichéd, and the meant-to-be-frightening mythos is mostly just confusing, highlighted by a laughable tendency to use the word “sick” as a prefix. As artful found-footage filmmaking, it pales in comparison to highlights of that style, like last year’s Patrick Brice-directed Creep, and viewed on an iPad in the harsh light of day, it’s about as scary as checking the mail.
But that is not how Sickhouse is meant to be viewed. Genre shortcomings aside, the shambolic feature — which, again, was shot as a Snapchat-native movie on a phone, in real time — achieves something truly impressive, an accomplishment far more important than whether it’s scary or not: It feels real. Although it bleeds into artificiality when the plot has to move too fast, Sickhouse is, for the most part, a convincing portrait of a bunch of teens hanging out. They goof on each other; flirt with each other; smoke weed; make stupid jokes; bond. They look and sound like internet-famous teens, down to the aggressive undercuts and skinny denim. And their phones are always there, looming, poised to capture the moment, bringing us in, toward a level of intimacy that, for anything but the youngest generation, is uncomfortable even at its most banal — and particularly so when it starts to touch the realm of confession and crisis.
Part of this works because of the film’s performances. Russett does a remarkably good job of playing both her on-camera persona and the slightly different character you might see off of it, and the three professional actors brought in to complement her — Laine Neil, Sean O’Donnell, and Lukas Gage, who all, except Neil, play versions of themselves — come across like teens at the center of a panopticon, constantly aware of themselves as people who are being watched. The disappearance of a link to their audiences is what most frightens them; it’s much scarier than the mythical Sickwife or whatever demons lurk around in the woods. When Neil, playing a fictional character named Taylor, forces them to hand over their phones, it’s like they’re giving her their tongues.
The other reason it succeeds is because of Snapchat. Throughout the proceedings the audience is acknowledged and addressed, and it’s hard not to wonder, watching the film, how it would feel to see this footage among the other clips you encounter on the service, of people playing with their dogs or sitting in traffic. At times, Sickhouse seems far more like mundane, unspectacular Snapchat stories than it does feature filmmaking: When the actors are driving, or getting ready to go out, the movie almost purges itself of gimmickry, to a far greater degree than your typical found-footage flick. In those movies, you usually can’t help but wonder why they don’t turn the camera off, but here, it’s rarely strange that the characters are Snapchatting. That’s just what they do.
To Macpherson’s credit, she clearly understands this, which is why Sickhouse is as much about the horrors of being online as it is about the horrors of being in the woods. The most poignant parts are when the characters just hang out, being teens. When movie stuff happens, like two of the girls (who are also cousins?????) making out in a hot tub, it’s cringeworthy to an extreme, because the lens of social media just calls out the artifice.
But the characters spend at least as much of the movie talking about what it’s like to have hundreds of thousands of people watching them as they do discussing the urban legend they’re investigating, and it’s in those moments that it finds the most resonance. That idea in and of itself is a horrifying prospect, and the ramifications of it — two fans they meet at the beach; an address posted online; subscribers — are far more frightening than the jump scares and set design, or even the shoehorned-in cyberbullying subplot that’s becoming the go-to motivator for movies about adolescents.
While Sickhouse is certainly not Blair Witch, it does suggest that the next horror film that will grab hold of the national consciousness could take some version of this form. The dynamic of watching and being watched is fear in its simplest form, and social media is that dynamic played out on a grand scale every second of every day. On the internet, nobody ever knows what’s real and what isn’t. If that isn’t scary, nothing is.