NR | 68 min | Hannah Macpherson | (USA) | 2016
Sometimes I forget that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) is coming up on its twentieth anniversary. I shouldn’t, though, because I regularly teach the film in my Introduction to Horror class and I’ve increasingly found students are just bored by it.
There have been films that have attempted to “update” The Blair Witch Project (I thought Bob Goldthwait’s 2013 film Willow Creek was particularly good), but, in many ways, and with all its flaws, Hannah Macpherson’s Sickhouse may be the real heir to The Blair Witch Project. It’s Blair Witch for millennials, for those born not too long before the turn into the twenty-first century and who have lived intimately with social media for their entire lives.
You should watch this film, I think, for the stark generational differences it points out between teens today and those of us who saw Blair Witch in the theater. Also, for its moments of genuine raw power, as well as the undeniable innovation of telling its story entirely through Snapchat. And, lastly, if you haven’t yet heard of Sickhouse’s director, Hannah Macpherson, well, you need to.
Sickhouse follows two cousins, Andrea (Andrea Russett) and Taylor (Laine Neil), along with two seemingly random guys (vaguely friends of Andrea), Sean (Sean O’Donnell) and Lukas (Lukas Gage), who decide to go off into the California woods to find “Sickhouse,” a place long surrounded by legend. Many people have died there, of course, and its most recent inhabitant was a man whose wife was “sick” (he was actually poisoning her) and now he lures girls to the house to share a similar fate.
After a way-too-long opening in which Andrea and Taylor drift around LA and Venice Beach filming themselves, find a kitten that dies (why is that in there?), and a pretty irrelevant party scene that made me care a whole lot less about everyone, the four main characters head off on their camping trip and the film becomes much more compelling. The very end is something of a disappointment but, honestly, that’s the price you pay for echoing The Blair Witch Project, which, whatever problems you may have had with it, has one of the most brilliant endings ever. Blair Witch showed that less is more, and, unfortunately, Sickhouse gives us more, and it is less.
Sickhouse directly references its predecessor (“Have you guys seen The Blair Witch Project?”) and is filled with more covert references. The characters stop and ask people about the legend of Sickhouse (filming them, of course). Lukas claims he knows where they’re going—but then is later forced to admit he doesn’t. The characters talk about getting lost, without ever really admitting it. As Andrea says, “It feels a lot like we’re lost.” They run across an old cemetery. They hear strange noises at night, see strange things during the day. Someone says, “We’re tired and hungry right now”—almost a direct quote from the earlier film. And they end up at a house that is the source of terrifying legend.
If you know anything about the YouTube phenomenon, though, you immediately know that one striking difference between Sickhouse and The Blair Witch Project is that the actors of Sickhouse are far from unknown quantities (as Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard were). Russett and O’Donnell (who play themselves) are both YouTube stars, with millions of followers. And their presence reminds us right off the bat that anonymity is much rarer than it used to be.
The YouTube celebrity of Russett and O’Donnell, earned by filming themselves, also makes it strikingly clear that self-involvement is now exponentially higher. The three film-makers in Blair Witch were creating a documentary about something other than themselves. One of them even yells at Heather, at one point, that they are not making a documentary about themselves getting lost in the woods—and there are constant arguments about Heather turning the camera on them, making them the subject. In Sickhouse, the main characters, whatever else they’re filming, are always filming themselves. It’s only when really strange things start to happen and the fear starts to ratchet up that you see the grip of narcissism start to loosen a little bit. But even then, and even as the characters may be weakly interested in documenting Sickhouse for itself, their interest is always themselves at Sickhouse. That part of the film was definitely disturbing to me, making me long for the detached perspective, the interest in a history that did not concern them, of Heather, Josh, and Mike in Blair Witch.
Sickhouse is, moreover, definitively not about anyone making a documentary. It’s constituted entirely by Snapchat videos that the seventeen-year-old Taylor takes and uploads with her older cousin Andrea’s phone (her mom confiscated hers). Early in the film, one of the characters actually says, “Snapchat isn’t like a documentary. It’s just stuff,” a really fascinating line that speaks volumes about young people’s relation to video and film. And in many ways, Sickhouse is “just stuff,” with a much baggier narrative shape than Blair Witch. This made me impatient at first, but when the characters get to the woods and ominous things started happening, the inevitable narrative discontinuities created by discrete chunks of video really worked to increase the suspense.
Macpherson also used the Snapchat function of imposing text over video, which, again, was an intriguing use of new media, though it could have been put to better use.
Taylor is taking the videos and uploading them, and she is a little disturbed, something increasingly revealed throughout the film. The text imposed on the videos, which was uniquely her (as opposed to the people she was filming), could have been used more effectively to reveal her troubled mental state—to show us (the viewers) something her friends weren’t seeing in real time.
Taylor’s mental state is, indeed, integral to the dread induced by the film. She has a secret—something that destroyed her life and that she regrets. Late in the film, she tells Andrea that she went on her best friend’s boyfriend’s phone and posted the nude pictures she found there on Facebook. Why??? Why would she do that? I wanted to know why, but Taylor doesn’t say and Andrea doesn’t ask. There was the sense that of course Taylor did it—unthinkingly, knowing she shouldn’t. She didn’t have a reason. The whole idea of just doing something, compulsively, also gets acted out at the end of Sickhouse—and I think it’s one of the points Macpherson is trying to make about teens. It may always have been true of teens that they do stupid things without knowing why—but the stakes are higher now everything’s on video.
In the end, then, and for all its problems, I do recommend you watch Sickhouse. It represents an innovation in the horror genre as well as doing what horror always does so well—invoking (and changing) the lineage of horror films that stand behind it. I also love what Hannah Macpherson is trying to say about teens and social media. Tara Subkoff did something similar (with much more stylish pretension) in #Horror (2015), but I think Sickhouse is more effective as horror and as social commentary.
If you’re interested, Hannah Macpherson has also directed the short #nightslikethese (featuring the hashtag, #beveryafraid), also about the lives of teen girls growing up with the constant presence of social media.
Here’s the preview of #nightslikethese: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvxp5IJ-Kjk as well as an interview by MovieMaker Magazine with Macpherson, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS2aCRk22So, who clearly cares very much about what social media is doing to the lives of young people.
Sickhouse is available on Vimeo from Indigenous Media at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/sickhouse. Indigenous Media originally released the film in live 10-second clips on the Snapchat social media app between the end of April and May 3, 2016.