Sick Girl Review
After scant few minutes of the opening of Eben McGarr’s low budget indie horror, “Sick Girl”, our psychotic female protagonist has already humiliated, terrorised, shot, tortured, and slashed (a throat, if you needed to know) her way through a number of victims, plus beaten and urinated all over a defenceless nun. She’s probably not a girl to take home to meet your parents.
Given such an introduction to Izzy, it would be easy to write off the picture as another obscene product churned out by the saturated extreme horror genre, or another sickening entry to the torture porn category, and this perhaps would have been the case, were it not for a level of underpinning intelligence that pushes the film ahead of many of its paler competitors.
In a small rural American town, the festive season is in full swing, but there’s little seasonal good will pouring forth from angry teenager Izzy; her parents are gone, and she is left to protect the “family” via whatever means she finds appropriate. The family consists of Izzy and younger brother Kevin (whom she affectionately refers to as “Little Boots”), a sensitive and kind boy whose favourite hobby is growing and caring for bonsai trees. Older brother Rusty, who taught Izzy her deadly combat ability, and with whom she seems to have a worryingly sexualised relationship, is also out of the picture, serving his country as a marine. The micro-family unit also benefits from some stability thanks to large family friend Barney, a big-hearted biker who presents a quasi-paternal influence for the remaining duo.
Izzy oozes bitterness from every pore, and her deep-seated anger is manifested in outbreaks of extreme violence, principally against a nasty trio of boys at Kevin’s school whom are bullying the vulnerable youngster; but there are other victims too, and a select few of them have the dubious honour of winding up as captives in the barn opposite the family home. These individuals become part of a bizarre extended family for Izzy, who “cares” for them as she feels best, and attempts to deal with everything using one of her only finely honed skills; violence.
The elements that push Sick Girl above the standard extreme horror fare are multifarious. The movie is surprisingly stylish, given that the horror genre doesn’t always gush with style. Take the opening segment, during which Izzy chases a terrified male victim across a field; a distant shot sees the two enter right and run to the left, followed by a much closer shot where Izzy leaps on her victim. Rather than display the violence this time, the screen freezes and fades to a red and white image of the still; very cool.
Additionally, the film refuses to patronise its audience; the violence is admittedly raw, shocking, and visceral, but scenes are often presented in different structures, such as Izzy’s silent pursuit of some female victims, which is interspersed with her thoughtful washing away of blood. The silence respects the inevitability of their demise; we don’t need the screams to tell us that things didn’t go well. Further, the film uses a careful balance of black humour to punctuate the bleakness of the subject matter. The Christmas seasonal positioning of the plot is very handy for some of the atrocities, and for the jovial music that provides an aural canvas for the splattering of blood. It's disturbing to find your foot tapping gleefully whilst obscene violence is unleashed!
Yet what really elevates Sick Girl to the next level is the strength of the social commentary, whether intended or otherwise. It seems no coincidence of plot that Izzy fights violence head on with violence whilst revered big brother Rusty serves his country fighting a war; should her actions come as a surprise? Further, the family’s parents are missing yet no explanation is ever given, and they are seldom spoken about; the “missing” parents and resultant dysfunctional family unit that Izzy tries hard to maintain is a portrait of the wider dysfunction in the modern family unit, and the level of confusion and fracturing that this provokes caricatures the situation disturbingly. Such is Izzy's deep-rooted desperation to solidify a family structure, that she craves her elder brother as a partner, to share the paternal and maternal duties together as a couple.
As you might expect, the film does have some negatives. Some of the performances are a little flat, to say the least (John P. McGarr’s “Barney” is somewhat one-dimensional – though the character still works, and Stephen Geoffreys’ "Mr Putski" doesn’t convince at all), the effects (by Monster FX), whilst acceptable enough, look to be commensurate with the low budget of the film (when Izzy sets fire to a car, the team opted for inferior CGI, rather than torching the real item), and the violent ideas that pierce our eyeballs are perhaps a little too extravagant and extreme for most tastes. Yet as a first full length feature for many of the team involved, Sick Girl is a surprisingly effective punch to the throat to disturb the most jaded extreme horror film enthusiast from their slumber.
Sick Girl is presented using an anamorphic (1.78:1) widescreen transfer, and the picture is clear, complete, and displaying a rich colour depth to ensure you can see the red as is splatters across the screen! Darks are solid, but perhaps a little too much at times, as we struggle to see clear definition when characters are standing in shadow. An example is the scene where Izzy holds the bullies captive near the lake. Note that the picture often has an earthy and grainy feel, but this is sometimes intentional, and doubtless sometimes due to the budget the picture was shot on. This doesn't detract from the quality of the presentation by any means, and the picture is clean without any noticeable flecks or noise.
It's recorded in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, but sound isn't a strong feature of the presentation. Whilst the sound quality in itself is acceptable, and the gnarling dirty bass synth that plods along gloomily like an early John Carpenter on downers is a fitting partner for the visuals, there are a few minor irritations. Firstly, parts of the soundtrack have excessive gain. You may find yourself notching up the volume to hear the dialogue clearly, then a drum beat or sound effect thunders forward at a disproportionately loud level. Secondly, the dialogue is very occasionally unclear, rather like the cast are mumbling. Finally, there appears to be a little audio noise during the lake scene as the shot switches to the sitting boys. This may have been due to the lake sounds picked up by the boom, but there is no continuity as the shot switches between Izzy and the boys. When switching to Izzy, the noise disappears, which wouldn't be the case in reality, due to her proximity to them.
Now, compared to the last couple of Synapse films I've reviewed, the extras here seem like a positive bonanza. The trailer and teaser are interesting, but perhaps give a little too much away, so don't watch them up front. The Sick Girl Public Service Announcement is delightful and echoes all film enthusiasts' feelings about noise in the cinema; it's a nice touch that they've filmed this little gem. "Death By..." is a fascinating short about Leslie Andrews created before she was in the movie, including her love of photographing herself in fake death scenes - well worth a viewing. The only disappointment is the Stephen Geoffreys interview, in which he talks on and on about his Fright Night role and some surrounding anecdotes, and then proceeds to spend what can't amount to as much as a minute on discussing Sick Girl. Finally, don't forget your "Chapter Selections" function, which is also listed as a "Special Feature" on the box.
“If you starve an animal almost to death...it makes him more aggressive”, Barney warns Kevin, and in doing so tells us the sad story of Sick Girl Izzy and her dysfunctional family unit. Starved of the love she needs from her parents, she seeks solace and balance through a world of violence, and the result is a gut-wrenching, emotional, and genuinely tense climax that will disturb you for a long time after the atrocities have left your screen.