Are horror films made about teenagers because being a teen is scary, or because teenagers themselves are monsters? In Sickhouse, it's both: the very first Snapchat feature film is a loud, frenetic, and wholly disorientating horror that relies on the hideous overexposure of teenage millennial life as much as its haunted house premise for shocks. If you don't get it, then maybe—like me—you're too old, just as some viewers were too old for Blair Witch's snot-dripping students.
Written and directed by Hannah Macpherson, an award-winning filmmaker born in New Mexico, Sickhouse's masterstroke is casting social media celebrity, Andrea Russett (or "andwizzle" on Snapchat) as its lead: a new breed of Warholian celebrity, Russett is famous in front of three-odd million followers in ten-second intervals. Starting out as a dare, the teenagers' trip to the woods and the haunted Sickhouse—broadcast at first as "real life" over five days, on the Snapchat account of its star—soon devolves into something more sinister. And, because they can't ever stop filming themselves on their iPhones, they don't. "So, you just don't have a phone?" one character shrieks at one point, as if this were the scariest thing in the film. "That's, like, insane."
In conversation with writer-director Macpherson, Broadly talks about Internet addiction, Hollywood's love of casting 35-year-old teenagers, and young adults still being dumb enough to walk into a haunted basement.
BROADLY: Sickhouse feels like a logical progression of what was being done with earlier found footage films like The Blair Witch Project, when hand-held cameras were still a "modern" medium. Was it your idea to make it using Snapchat?
Indigenous Media, this company that focuses on very innovative, emerging ways of telling stories, called me up and said, "We want to make the first Snapchat feature film, and we think you're the person to write and direct it"—which I think was a nod to the fact that I'm basically a 16 year old trapped in a 30-something body, and I stalk people of this age group on Twitter and Snapchat. And I said, I know what it has to be: It's got to be Blair Witch for Gen Z. What's funny is, when I asked 16 and 17-year-olds if they've seen Blair Witch, they haven't! They've never even heard of it!
That…makes me feel incredibly old.
I know! I was a 17-year-old in that theatre, totally wondering if it was a documentary, and loving the experience of knowing that it could be. We're living in an age where it's extremely challenging to sneak up on anybody with a story, because everyone's so savvy to TV and movies. So we got to sneak up on an unsuspecting audience of millions, and tell a scary story. And it's a full-on homage to Blair Witch; it's basically remaking that movie on Snapchat, with this subtext of social media narcissism.
There's some horror in that, as well. I don't know if this is me showing my age—I don't even actually even have a smartphone—but I found it quite hard to watch: the scribbled text, the ten-second cuts, and the pace was quite stressful. Oh God, this is making me sound ancient…
No, no! I'm a big fan of horror movies, and they're often really formulaic; so for me, a horror movie is all about the environment and the background. So my actual version of horror is teenagers on social media. All the work I'm doing right now is pretty much about how the smartphone is going to ruin the younger generation. The sections about [cyberbullying and smartphone addiction] were the kinds of things that were in the script, so that even if the scene was improvised, that was in there. Andrea says it best: "Snapchat isn't a documentary, it's just stuff." To me, that's about as creepy as it can get. They're deliberately getting rid of their own privacy.
There's something more believable about a teenager going into a dark basement than, you know, a 45-year-old accountant.
What I think works really well is the fact that Snapchat gets rid of the classic concern with found footage films, which is "why are they still filming?" You look at these teens, and you think, Of course they are. An iPhone is basically an extension of a teenage millennial's body.
I hope that works, for sure. I think at some point you have to put your belief in reality on the backburner for a minute—but I think in this case, even when there's real danger, you can buy it. Because there is a sense of community that's built, even on an app like Snapchat, where teenagers are sitting in their bedrooms alone and yet they feel that they're surrounded by their friends. They're sharing something with the audience that makes them feel less scared.
In handheld camera horror, they always say "if this tape is found." But with Snapchat, there's an assumed audience. And it's great that they all look like real teenagers. They look like the kids you were at school with.
Yeah, and they look like they're actually camping, and don't have time to sit in hair and makeup. That's what was great about this project, and about being able to get it to fall right into people's laps at home and on their phones, because we couldn't show our hands at all in making it look unauthentic. I wanted them to look like real people, because what I'm talking about are real issues. A lot of situations on social media, like sexting and posting nudes: that stuff's not scary when the people doing it look 35. But when you're 14, it's scary.
Why do you think so many horror films are about teenagers, specifically? Is it that being a teenager's scary, or is it that teenagers themselves are scary?
I think our threshold for danger when we're teenagers is much lower, so there's something more believable about a teenager going into a dark basement than, you know, a 45-year-old accountant. But also, this is—in a way—a monster movie, and the monster is inside each of them. When you're a teenager and you get to choose how you portray yourself, especially now that includes things like Snapchat, who are you? Are you creepy, are you sexy, are you beautiful? They have a monster in the house, but really this is about those other kinds of internal monsters.
Sickhouse is available to view on Vimeo and BitTorrent.