“Sickhouse” is a found footage horror movie written and directed by Hannah Macpherson. The film takes the form of a series of Snapchat videos shot over a 48 hour period where a group of friends heads out into the wilderness in search of a rumored haunted house known as Sickhouse.
For the uninitiated, the fundamental premise behind Snapchat is the posting of temporary videos taken by mobile devices which are permanently deleted immediately after first viewing. Snapchat stories, featured in Sickhouse, are videos which remain online for 24 hours before self-destructing—more on this later.
Sickhouse opens with the obligatory on-screen message setting up the origin of the footage about to be presented: “In April 2016, a group of friends in Southern California set off to find Sickhouse, a rumored haunted house in the woods. Its existence has never been verified. The group posted the entire trip live via cell phone to Andrea Russett’s Snapchat. Millions watched these events unfold in real-time.”
The found footage opens with a selfie video recorded by Andrea (Andrea Russett) which is posted directly to her Snapchat account. Andrea is on her way to LAX airport to pick up her cousin Taylor (Laine Neil) who ran away from home to stay with Andrea. Taylor is exhausted after her long flight, so the two cousins head back to Andrea’s home to relax.
Andrea is very comfortable in front of the camera. She records everything noteworthy in her life and shares it with her following of over 500,000 Snapchat users. A somewhat shy and tentative Taylor is somewhat perplexed by her cousin’s non-stop recording, but is a quick study and adapts to Andrea’s share everything lifestyle. In fact, Taylor quickly becomes too loose with Andrea’s camera, posting private moments and personal information not intended for the half a million people following Andrea.
The next morning, Andrea announces she is giving Taylor a tour of LA. Two head out on the town. Their adventure starts with finding an abandoned kitten (which Andrea adopts), buying camping supplies, spending the afternoon in Venice Beach, and running into two of Andrea’s Snapchat followers. The day ends with a party at Andrea’s friend’s house—which culminates with drugs, a hot tub,and a game of truth or dare.
The following day, Andrea, Taylor, and several friends head out on a camping trip to find a rumored haunted house, commonly referred to as Sickhouse. The location of the infamous Sickhouse is hidden in riddles. Equally as perplexing is Sickouse’s notorious history. The house was supposedly used as a place to torture and kill people during the prohibition era and was later lived in by a man who slowly poisoned his wife. What Andrea and Taylor find out in the woods is disturbing and horrific. Are the rumors true and will the two cousins live to tell their story?
Found Footage Cinematography
The found footage cinematography used throughout Sickhouse is generally good. The entire film is shot in portrait mode from the POV of Andrea’s smartphone. The film is presented as video clips captured from Andrea’s Snapchat account that were presumably stitched together into feature length movie format. To the relief of this reviewer, the cinematography itself is never overly shaky. While the persistently steady hand of the camera operator is somewhat unrealistic (especially with a smartphone), some liberties must be made to make a film presentable to a broad audience.
The cinematography of Sickhouse is at its best when the camera is trained on one person talking in a fixed location. The moment the camera starts panning or the camera operator starts walking, the narrow field of view shows its limitations for the feature length film.
Sickhouse admirably adheres to the Snapchat format, which is typically shot in portrait mode. Many of the video clips often include text overlays and hand-drawn images, which are features in Snapchat. The film also includes chapter breaks which are separated by title cards with the date and dramatic sound design, which would be indicative of a collection of video clips edited by a third party into a feature length film.
The filming reason measures how successfully a movie justifies why the characters capture enough footage for a feature-length film. Sickhouse’s underlying premise is that Andrea, a famous Snapchat user, posts every noteworthy event in her daily life to her Snapchat account for all to see.
Coupled with this filming reason is Andrea’s cousin who uses Snapchat for the first time (using Andreas account) and quickly becomes addicted to the experience of having a million eyes watch everything she records. We learn that Taylor’s mom confiscated her phone before she ran away to visit Andrea, creating a valid justification for having Andrea let Taylor use her smartphone to record.
Taylor doesn’t have the experience or wherewithal to filter what she chooses to record, resulting in the posting of private moments and personal information that Andrea would not have otherwise shared with her followers. At one point in Sickhouse, Andrea says to Taylor, “You’ve gotta stop Snapchatting literally everything…I’ve created a monster.” Taylor’s incessant filming offers some well-needed character development early on in Sickhouse that wouldn’t have been captured otherwise.
In the latter part of the film, the characters find themselves in immediate peril. Despite this danger, Taylor continues filming, which is somewhat justified by her using the smartphone as a light source in a dark location.
Found Footage Purity
Sickhouse does a good job maintaining its found footage conceit until 52-minutes into the film. At this point in the story a full musical score and overt sound design are introduced that continue through to the end of the film. Unfortunately, this editing decision completely unravels the found footage reality Sickhouse painstakingly builds upon during the first two-thirds of the movie. Many viewers are likely to find the inclusion of music and sound design so late in the film jarring and intrusive. For many, the approach will undoubtedly destroy any modicum of perceived reality Sickhouse sets out to achieve.
Music and overt sound design are normal tropes in narrative shot films, where the camera, sound, and lighting sources are of no consequence to the storytelling. However, in a found footage film, these elements are critical components used to establish the perceived reality of the resulting footage. The violation of any of these three elements in any openly apparent way can easily hurt a film. The manner in which music is added to Sickhouse so late in the film after 52 minutes of silence is alarmingly grating to the tone of the film.
The next question Sickhouse begs is how the footage presented was recovered. The very existence of the footage is adequately justified by the fact that all of the videos shot by Taylor were uploaded to Andrea’s Snapchat account. These videos were presumably downloaded by a third party who added the opening text and chapter break title cards. At one point in the film, the characters find themselves out in the woods with spotty cell service. Taylor says that the smartphone is set up to automatically upload video clips to Andrea’s Snapchat account whenever the phone finds a connection, justifying how the video clips captured during the climactic ending of the film were recovered.
Andrea Russett plays herself as the charismatic Snapchatter in Sickhouse. Andrea is no stranger to the camera as she is a real-life Youtube sensation with close to 2.8 million subscribers and 230 million views (as of this writing). She effectively uses her magnetic personality and uncanny ability to play to the camera and quite literally steals the show in Sickhouse. Andrea Russett undoubtedly honed her skills through her years of success reeling in Youtube views.
Playing across Andrea Russett is Laine Neil as the shy and timid Taylor. Quite the opposite of Andrea, Taylor is a reclusive and socially awkward teen harboring a deep rooted secret that pushed her to run away from home. Personality-wise, Taylor and Andrea are polar opposites, which works well for Sickhouse. With a few words and a smile, Andrea Russett coaxes some great moments from Laine Neil’s character.
Lukas Gage, plays Lukas, Andreas friend and new found love interest of Taylor. Lukas Gage performs admirably as the stereotypical teenager. In his attempt to fit in, he makes some not so great decisions with repercussions that impact the whole group. Rounding out the cast are good performances by Sean O’Donnell (himself) as Andrea’s boyfriend and Jc Caylen (himself) as Andrea’s friend.
While Sickhouse is most decidedly a horror movie, the film (whether intentionally or not) is also a social commentary on the impact of social media on modern day society, particularly the lack of privacy.
While Andrea and Taylor are enjoying their day in Venice Beach, they happen upon two of Andrea’s Snapchat followers. In reality, the two fans most likely saw Taylor’s Snapchat posts on Venice Beach (which are uploaded in real-time) and went to the beach to search for Andrea. The two adolescent stalkers appear several times during the film, mysteriously appearing whenever Taylor posts videos that indicate Andrea’s location, such as public landmarks, stores, or restaurants. Taylor’s is a bit too heavy-handed with the send button, resulting in Andrea losing her privacy.
The horror story element of Sickhouse is interesting, including the infamous backstory and lore behind Sickhouse. The film does a good job presenting Sickhouse as a real place by having the characters interview people throughout the story asking what they know about the fabled building. Taylor even posts the address of the sickhouse website, which tells the story behind Sickhouse, has photos of the original owners, and of course, a link to buy the film.
For those brave enough to search for and actually find Sickhouse, the film (and website) explain the three rules that must be followed to ensure safety:
- Don’t make any noise,
- Never go inside
- Always leave a gift on the porch.
Following the standard horror movie protocol, when unwitting characters are presented with rules that must be followed, we all know what invariably happens—oops, was that a spoiler?