Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Sick House: Nobody's Home

Okay, right here and now, I am calling for a moratorium on abandoned hospitals as settings for horror films. Find somewhere else to shoot.

I have seen this setting used effectively exactly once. At best, it seems like a stand-in for actual mood or atmosphere - Decaying, deserted building? Institutional vibe with rusty medical stuff everywhere? Instant scary, no effort needed. Assemble a cast of archetypes - hero, ruffians of varying degrees of sympathy - set them loose to running around the abandoned hospital, and send something (tall, hulking, and dark) after them. Spread a thick layer of jump cuts, artsy inserts, and vibrating bad guys (thanks, Jacob's Ladder), and you have a movie that has all of the necessary gestures and aesthetics to be scary, but actually fails to be scary.

In other words, The Sick House.

So there's this archeologist who opens the movie with a lecture she's giving on the spread of the bubonic plague in London. She points out a spot where the spread seemed to stop - a mile or so from an orphanage which she's in the process of excavating. One of her students helpfully asks who the weird-looking dude with the mask is in the old engravings, and the professor, equally helpful, explains that it's a priest serving as a plague doctor - a healer who stayed with the victims, vainly trying to treat them. Another helpful student pipes up with the legend of the Black Priest, an evil monk who sacrificed children around this same period in history. No, says the professor, plague doctors were good guys. The "exposition completed" bell rings, and class is over.

I mean, I understand that you have to establish the setting and the premise, but this was unsubtle enough that they might as well have had it as a text crawl on the screen. In fact, that probably would have been better.

As the professor leaves the class, her boss tells her that the dig site is going to have to be shut down because samples of the plague bacterium have been found on artifacts retrieved from the site. The professor isn't happy about this because the hospital which resides on top of the dig is slated for demolition - and in fact, the demolition schedule has been moved up. It's going to be razed tomorrow. Cue the professor's late-night clandestine, security-guard-dodging visit to the site. It's so pro forma it hurts. Of course she's going to visit the site. She goes down to the basement to crack open a sealed chamber before demolition, and finds some cryptic drawings and a box with a crudely made doll in it. Unearthing this box makes special effects happen and a low frequency tone indicates that some old evil has been set loose in the hospital.

Cut to a group of hooligans joyriding in a stolen car. They're monkeying with a video camera they found under the driver's seat and generally being all rowdy, blasting the music and yelling a lot and acting crazy. Plus one of them has a huge-ass wallet chain and another is wearing a pentagram ring, so you know they're bad news in that 1980s teen-comedy way. On the other hand, one of them is deaf and another is pregnant, which is new. In the midst of all of their rowdiness, they end up crashing into what might be a person (or might not), losing control of the car and crashing right in front of the hospital. They take refuge inside.

From here on out, it's a slasher movie that thinks it's a ghost story. The filmmakers have a great iconic visual they can use - the silhouette of a plague doctor is distinct and recognizable. It would make an awesome ghost. Instead, we get a tall figure in black only distinguishable from any other hulking killer by the conical mask he wears. At least, we assume that's it. Most of the time when he appears, his head shakes rapidly back and forth like every ghost since Jacob's Ladder came out. The whole premise of this movie hinges on a single iconic figure, and the filmmakers don't utilize it. Murky lighting and jumpy editing don't help. It's hard to be frightened when you have to actively process what you're looking at.

Among other things, ghost stories are usually built around unfinished business. The ghost is stuck there until they complete or resolve whatever traps them. It isn't made clear what the ghost's unfinished business is until very late in the movie, at which point we get sort of an exposition dump that gives context to things we saw in the first 15 minutes of the movie that have gone unmentioned since, and then the story line rushes forward like it has a train to catch before we can stop to ask what the point of it all actually is. There's a ritual, ghosts of murdered children, the ghost making sacrifices out of the people trapped in the hospital, but all of this is piled on so hastily that it feels like they started shooting the movie before they were done writing the script, hoping the tried-and-true setting and festival of effects and gore would carry the movie. Which is sort of like asking the condiments to carry a hamburger.

Throughout, the theme of disease and contagion goes pretty much completely ignored. Not for a second did this movie need to deal with the plague. The antagonist is barely connected to it, its power as a modern threat is brought up once and ignored, and its effects are used briefly as a sign of possession by the ghost. The plague could have been a malign spirit itself, the doctor imprisoned with the orphans he was trying to treat, but no, he was a medieval serial killer who sacrificed children so that he would…I don't know, be able to keep sacrificing children? What we're left with is probably supposed to keep us talking after we've finished watching, but instead is an impenetrable mess which ends in a manner both hackneyed and confusing.

I don't like panning movies. Movie criticism hinges so much on a sucks/rules dichotomy as it is, and I really hate the "why didn't they just…" school of criticism. I understand stupid and foolish behavior in horror movies (to a point), but this movie didn't give me a lot of room to work. It's a collection of cliched aesthetic cues molded in the shape of a story, but when you look underneath the surface, it is soulless and hollow. The lights are on, but nobody's home.

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  1. Interesting thoughts. The whole 'bad guy for no reason' thing really grates on me in horror movies, which I think is why I find a lot of Japanese horror movies obnoxious. When the antagonist is just killing for killing's sake I find it hard to emmerse myself in the movie.

  2. I don't necessarily have a problem with killing for no reason (it's never made clear in Røvdyr why the killers are doing what they're doing, and it's a great movie), it's that in this instance there are maybe a couple of reasons, but none of them are followed up. A total absence of motive can be okay, but half-assing one is somehow worse to me.

  3. I haven't even seen that many modern horror films, but I can totally see how the cliches you described would become such. It's OK to pan things so long as, like the bad guys, the panning has a reason to exist.