Sissy, a very sassy and diabolically entertaining new Australian horror movie from director-writing team Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes, puts in its satirical crosshairs two things once believed to be good for humankind, but now widely regarded as evidence of our continued descent into self-inflicted destruction: social media and the wellness industry.
Cecilia, AKA Sissy (Aisha Dee), is an influencer and self-professed “mental health advocate” desperate to keep the likes and engagements coming. The film’s sardonic commentary about “wellness” and the depravities of online existence are closely linked with her vainglorious personality and cringe-inducing behaviour. Early on we see Sissy recording of one of her videos on the floor – air purifier on one side, yoga mat on the other– yabbering about how laying a rope around oneself signifies “our very own safe space”, before demonstrating the healing powers of hyperventilation.
Sissy is a deranged pleasure to watch, though a strong stomach and an appreciation of genre protocols is highly recommended. But for the same reason, it poses challenges to review. For a long time it’s unclear where things are heading: not just in terms of plot, but in key questions such as who is the villain (or villains) and who are the victims.
The MacGuffin is a chance encounter between Sissy and her one-time best friend Emma (Hannah Barlow), the latter being far keener to catch up than the former. This reunion is unusually staged, the directors cutting between each actor staring into the camera, breaking the fourth wall while maintaining a conversation. This highlights the awkwardness of the encounter and has an intentionally displacing effect, the form of the film doing one thing (creating distance by pushing the viewer away) and the content doing another (forcing Sissy to suffer through an unwanted interaction).
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Sissy reluctantly agrees to attend Emma’s hen weekend, held at a remote property where most of the film takes place. A short dream sequence about 20 minutes in, culminating with vision of a younger Sissy covered in blood, marks the turning point at which the film crosses over into more overtly horrific terrain, though its cards remain pretty close to its chest. Driving to the bachelorette party, Sissy hits a kangaroo, which cannot be a good sign of what lies ahead. This scene reminded me of a moment from the Ozploitation classic Long Weekend and, by god, it didn’t work out well for the leads in that film: a married couple who pay dearly for disrespecting the environment when all of nature turns against them.
The horror in Sissy is more personal, rooted in character and the terror of rekindling old relationships that one would prefer to keep in the past. Another hen party attender is Alex (Emily De Margheriti), Sissy’s former primary school friend with whom she had a very dramatic falling out. Things get awkward around the dinner table, where Sissy is badgered for her rather spurious vocation, which the group do not approve of – until all-out bloody mayhem ensues, for reasons I won’t disclose here.
Aisha Dee’s painfully good performance in the titular role helps the satire pop and crackle, and cleverly makes aspects of the film unclear: we don’t know whether to pity her, root for her or what to think of her, full stop. All roads eventually return to commentary on social media and the wellness industry, two entities that are increasingly considered to be putrid stains on modern existence but nevertheless appear to be sticking around.
Given the head-pounding horror of the final act, which has schlocky moments and scenes you are bound to watch through the slits of your fingers, audiences are more likely to come out clutching the walls than emerge discussing the nuances of the film’s satire. But the satirical elements are there, beneath the fake blood and mulched-up body parts. They add a perhaps unexpected level of depth to a film that is impressively unpredictable all the way to the bitter end – a very difficult and commendable achievement, in a genre as coded and conventionalised as horror.
Sissy is in cinemas around Australia from 3 November and is available to stream on Shudder in the UK and US.