Zombos Says: Fair
"I don't have time for this," said Anna (Gina Philips), the comely archeology student in The Sick House.
Zombos and I looked at each other. We agreed with her. Once again Paul Hollstenwall, the scion of inconsequential cinema, had underwhelmed us with another exercise in pointless moviemaking.
Anna has just discovered the four punk metal wannabes who are freaking out because one of them appears to have the plague. For shame: that will teach them not to go kicking about in stolen cars for joy rides and breaking into bio-hazard excavation sites previously used as plague hospitals. And shame on Anna, too. Here she is yelling at them for breaking and entering when she did it first, releasing a centuries old evil—and former member of that notorious 1665 London touring group known as the Black Priests—in the process.
The five of them, the usual mix of underachieving and overachieving victims you’ll find slamming into each other in slasher movies, are in for a rough night of it. So is everyone else watching this whoozy, blurry, head-spinning shock-cut apparition, and zoicks! musical extravaganza. Whatever originality and novelty to be found in the story is undercooked by director Curtis Radclyffe's palsied camera and over-reliance on J-horror hackneyism.
"Why can he not keep the bloody camera still!" cried Zombos.
"He's sustaining the tension by forcing your disorientation with his constantly moving frame," explained Paul.
"Tension? My neck is tense from all the quick-cut splicing and visual chittering," Zombos retorted. "And those flickering fluorescent light fixtures must go. Could they not afford better lighting? I cannot see what is going on."
Plague doctors? London's Black Death of 1665?
A capital idea for gut-wrenching suspense and terror is reduced to a half farthing's worth of overdone digital and cutting room trickery, making sense the first victim in this suspense-less nonsense. My mind drifted among the possibilities if less confusing herky-jerky motion and more stillness were the norm, to let the actors convey the terror overwhelming them.
Gina Philips gives a fair performance, though she seems too calm, too emotionless at times when you'd expect some "oh, sh*t, it's the plague, we're so f**ked!" or "blimey, what the hell is that thing what wants to eat our souls and kill us!"
Instead, she's so proper, so academic. At least the others provide some frenzied bickering and craziness, and run like the dickens through the halls of the orphanage away from the not so good reawakened evil doctor making his terminal rounds. Lots of aimless running is part and parcel to horror movies, but here it’s more aimless and unintentionally confusing.
"Help me out here," pleaded Zombos. "Are you pondering what I am pondering?"
"Not if it involves cocoa butter and bananas," I said.
Zombos and Paul stopped arguing and looked at me. I quickly pulled my thoughts back to landfall.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"What do you think? asked Zombos. "Paul thinks this bloody movie is a punky masterpiece of new horror style and I am too old to appreciate it. Talk some sense into him will you."
I took a deep sip from my hot mocha latte, embellished with Chef Machiavelli's secret mix of herbs and spices he calls the Bombay tincture. I looked at Zombos, then at Paul. They waited expectantly with folded arms. I took another long sip and pondered. Was it simply bad direction or bad directorial choices? Was the acting mediocre or just hacked to pieces by all the scene juggling? Was the story poorly written or intentionally ground into a confusing mash? The Bombay tincture fortified my thoughts enough to proceed.
"It's obvious the choices made here point to commercially shaping the movie for a younger audience, especially with the odd addition of that acid-drenched-metal song screeching over the opening credits. Today’s kids' snippet-drenched YouTube attention spans are primed for choppy narrative, so they probably wouldn't notice the yawning chasms of missing structural coherence in the visual narrative of this movie."
There. I said it.
Zombos and Paul continued to look at me. Each slowly unfolded his arms. They ignored what I said and started arguing again. Good. At least now they would leave me alone to enjoy my mocha latte in peace.
But what ails The Sick House?
Although it contains cliché after cliché repeated in numbing succession, the acting is strong, the historical context very intriguing, and the atmosphere almost menacing, in spite of the overused Saw-styled tinting in the saturated lighting.
Ludgate Orphanage, aside from its spookhouse-flickering fluorescents, is dark—often too dark to make out what is happening—and filled with brooding rooms and hallways. Then there's the tall, unstoppable, plague doctor dressed in his bizarre clothing and bird-like mask, stalking around with a bevy of grotesque children, murdered by him back in the 1600s. There is also a kicker ending that twists the story back on itself; but it will leave you just as confused as before.
The archeological dig that Anna's been working on in the basement of the orphanage leads to another chamber further down. Before she can dig deeper, the authorities find evidence of lingering plague. Being an A student, Anna ignores the grave danger to herself, and the public at large, and breaks into the condemned orphanage after hours, to continue her work.
While she's digging around in the basement, the four miscreant fun-loving hoody-punksters crash their stolen auto near the orphanage. Finding the door open—thanks to Anna—they hustle inside to avoid the English Bobbies and all those nasty lectures on grand theft auto and public menace behaviors they've obviously heard before.
It all goes down at midnight.
Time becomes frozen for everyone in the building as the plague doctor (John Lebar), brought back from the netherworld by Anna's academic zeal, makes his killer appearance. There seems to be satanic purpose to his malevolence, but in J-horror fashion, the story doesn't give you much to go on and the director is so hellbent on gimmicking the action, it becomes impossible to follow at times, actually, most of the time, to the point of annoyance.
One clue: it all revolves around a baby to be born, but that is all you get.
Although there is not much gore, you do have people yelling at each other a lot and frantically running to or away from danger, people becoming possessed and frantically chasing other people, and people slippin' 'n slidin' in something white, gelatinous, and filled with pukey-looking nastiness.
Leading up to an illogical but plot-convenient bathing scene—this is the creepy, insane killer infested orphanage remember—in thousands of blood sucking leeches (used to treat the plague back then: go figure).
The ending neatly leads into a sequelization antic for another set of plague doctor's rounds ad nauseam in a round of franchise sequels, but I don’t think this doctor got to make another house call on DVD yet.
Maybe Paul is right. Maybe Zombos and I are too old to appreciate the style of The Sick House. Or maybe a script doctor and a steadier hand at the camera would have made this a more memorable, even classic, frightfest instead of another victims-offed in factory assembled horror movie storyline, with added visual confusion to make it appear youthfully fresh.