The Sick House Review

Bringing out the dead…

Trent Reznor has much to answer for as regards the current state of horror. His and Mark Romanek’s video for Closer brought that scratchy jump-cut style of horror well to the fore, particularly in the kind of ‘fore’ that includes MTV and VH1. All the better that it featured such images as a pig’s head on a spike, a diagram of a woman’s naughty bits, a naked woman wearing nowt but a mask and a monkey tied to a crucifix. None of which, on their own, made a great deal of sense but which together implied that something awful was occurring in a place where men peered through windows at events. If you’ve ever sat open-mouthed at a naked woman with a cleft palette on the screen while some industrial dirge is playing on the soundtrack, then not only are you watching the remake of House On Haunted Hill (or its sequel) but you’re seeing something that pays much homage to Reznor, Romanek and Closer.
The Sick House is yet another of these films. The soundtrack grinds and throbs while the lights flicker. The scratches on one complements those of the other while the ghosts of the hospital at Ludgate flicker on the screen. Ludgate is the setting for The Sick House, in which there is an archaeological dig at the site of an old plague hospital. Young archaeologist Anna (Gina Philips) is leading the dig but when evidence of the plague is found in the ground in soil samples, the site is secured and closed to her team. Driven on by her curiousity over a sealed chamber, she breaks into the site and through the sealed wall. Outside, joyriders Nick (Alex Hassell), Jewels (Kellie Shirley), Steve (Andrew Knott) and Clive (Jack Bailey) also enter the hospital, their stolen car having hit a mysterious figure in the street. Outside of the dig site, time stops. Inside, everyone is being drawn closer to the dig by the Order of the Black Priests, a medieval sect led by the Plague Doctor, who murdered children during the time of the Great Plague and who, as his ghost walks the hospital, will do so again.

It doesn’t look good for a film when its audience of one, who would be me, checks on just how long is left not once but every five minutes. Nor does it serve The Sick House well to say that House On Haunted Hill does this whole scratchy horror thing a whole lot better, particularly when even the most undemanding of moviegoers would admit that Dark Castle’s movie wasn’t really very good at all. And speaking of which, when someone as inattentive as this viewer suddenly spots a vast, ocean-sized hole in the plot, The Sick House stands as much chance of recovering itself as a panty-thief backstage at a Victoria’s Secret show. In case you’re wondering, this particular dip in the action comes as the cast find themselves with the knowledge of how each of them will die. With Nick now armed with the knowledge that he will burn to death, he tells Anna that he will refuse any offer of a light that she should make only for, not two minutes later, to light up a makeshift torch constructed from body fat and a leather jacket. You would have to go back to Ted Stryker and his fear of flying to see such a sudden about turn. Still…made me laugh.
However, all these things pale when put against the horror in the film. Like the Dark Castle films, this is not actually horror per se, more that the more The Sick House swims about in body fat, leeches and a black goo that might be blood, the less terrifying it becomes. Otherwise, there’s nothing of substance in the film. As a villain, the Black Priest flits about in the shadows surrounded by ghostly children. At other times, he appears as nothing but a bright light outside of a door. A voiceover hints at ghostly occurrences but is then let down by a shortage of people to slaughter. Even then, there isn’t any element of surprise as Anne finds a notebook early in the film that explains just how everyone will eventually meet their end. One also becomes very suspicious of just how much mileage the film gets out of how scary the handicapped are. Taking the easy way out, the producers rather pick on Clive who begins The Sick House as deaf and somewhat shy but who is soon murdering and raping.

Though rated 18, The Sick House doesn’t really deserve it. The film comes with a very heavy blue tint with any blood appearing more black than red while the blur of shots disguises any savaging of flesh and bone. Like the sudden cuts of Event Horizon, DVD does serve the film better than any cinema presentation would as one can pause the film in these moments to best pick out the horror but, even then, there are only slim pickings, there being plenty of blood but very little that might terrify. While a good beginning does much to set up what might happen, the rest of the film lets it down. And then, not only does the look of the film owe much to Closer but the song that plays over the opening titles sounds like it too. Save yourself eighty minutes of wasted time and simply track down Closer on YouTube.

Anamorphically presented in 1.78:1, which betrays The Sick House‘s direct-to-DVD roots, watching the film is only slightly less depressing than spending a night in an abandoned children’s hospital. While the blue tint seems to have come through post-production and the on-the-set use of fluorescent lighting, one is often peering through the gloom to see what’s happening. The DVD doesn’t cope with this at all well, with the early part of the film looking flat while the second part is soft, blurry and jitters about far too often for the disc to really get a handle on. The contrast, in particular, is all over the place with certain shots, even of the characters, looking unnatural while the very slight differences in shadows and the darkness produces a lot of errors in the encoding. Shots of, for example, Anna in the darkness of the dig site look to be swimming in noise.
There is a choice of DD5.1 or DD2.0 audio tracks with the latter being the default option. There is a fair difference between the two, though, with the DD5.1 track using the rear speakers to bring the audio out into the centre of the room. This also serves to give The Sick House a more unsettling soundtrack than is allowed by the stereo track. Frankly, it needs just about all the help that it can get in this regard. Otherwise, things are kept fairly simple with the dialogue, often a South London rash of, “Fack off you facking…fack!”, being at least clear with reasonably good use of ambient effects. Finally, though, there are no subtitles.

The only bonus material on this disc are a series of Cast And Crew Interviews (15m46s) and a Trailer (2m01s). However, by this point in the experience, I felt that there wasn’t very much more than one would want to learn about The Sick House.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Jul 09, 2008

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