Among all the possible places to launch an indie horror film in which brains and body parts splatter across the Australian bush, SXSW might seem like a pipe dream. And yet that’s exactly where Sissy directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes found themselves earlier this year: in the back row of an Austin cinema for the premiere of their movie.
“Of course, we’re sitting there in our neurotic nervousness,” Barlow recalls. She was so anxious she might have had her eyes scrunched shut. “I don’t even remember it. Kane was like, ‘They were loud, Hannah!’”
But the screaming audiences were just one part of their very buzzy premiere. Horror streaming service Shudder had acquired the film before it had even played in theatres; a blitz of rave reviews soon followed. Now, Sissy is finally out in Australian cinemas – an apt homecoming, perhaps, for a film loosely inspired by one of the country’s most notorious scammers: Belle Gibson.
Like Gibson – the influencer who built an online empire off of her miraculous recovery from terminal brain cancer only for her diagnosis to be exposed as a con – Sissy also espouses quack remedies to her loyal Instagram following. Bathed in the ghastly hue of millennial pink, Sissy (or Cecilia, as she reminds us in increasingly menacing fashion) leads viewers through guided meditations with names such as “making friends with hyperventilation”, all while slowly going off the rails herself.
“We went in judging the influencer,” Barlow says. “And then, as the process continued, we realised in the writing process that we are all Cecilia. It’s very easy for us to judge influencers for commodifying their identity in a toxic way – sure. But we’re all doing the same thing.”
Not exactly the same thing, one hopes, given Cecilia’s murderous proclivities. Played by The Bold Type’s Aisha Dee, Cecilia heads off on a hen weekend for a childhood best friend somewhere just outside Canberra. It’s the height of a sticky Australian summer and tensions soar with the temperature; she ends up picking off members of the group like mosquitoes. Call it four funerals and a wedding.
Throughout it all, Cecilia masks her mania with the woo-woo language of wellness: the most marginal of slights become “traumas”, which can only be healed with crystals and grounding exercises broadcast to her adoring fans. In one sequence, Cecilia hastily buries a body – only to go live on Instagram seconds later and proselytise the wonders of kindness as adoring comments roll in.
Influencers, says Barlow, “are the iconoclasts of our generation. That’s what our generation has produced throughout our collective mentality and behaviour. We have propped up these people, so we’re responsible.”
She’s guilty of it herself. “I don’t want Flex Mami or Abbie Chatfield to go away. I love them, I learn so much from them. They are my gurus.” But she believes we could all do with a little less screen time: “Where we all have to begin is with the simple act of rolling out of bed and not picking up our phones. That’s the key to our salvation. And I don’t think we’re going to succeed.”
When Barlow and Senes started working on Sissy, influencers were still few and far between in film. Ingrid Goes West, the 2017 pitch-black comedy starring Aubrey Plaza as the obsessed stalker of an Instagram celebrity, was a rare exception, released while the pair were writing. (“We were waiting with bated breath to make sure that it doesn’t turn into a slasher – it doesn’t,” says Senes.)
In the years since, the influencer has become a staple of the silver screen: the narcissistic conwoman of recent release Not Okay; Joe Keery’s bug-eyed, blood-soaked live-streamer in Spree; the vapid, impossibly trendy quartet of Bodies Bodies Bodies. Senes feels as though “we’re part of a generation of film-makers that are tackling this”.
Influencers, in all their outsized, tantalising spectacle, are tailor-made for cinema. The films made about them share a common campiness; it’s no surprise that one of Sissy’s greatest influences was the zany comedy of Muriel’s Wedding. (If Muriel Heslop decided to kill off all of her tormentors halfway through.)
“Muriel’s Wedding definitely became a north star for us in terms of the tone,” Senes says. Barlow lights up: “That movie is fucked up! We all grew up with it being a colourful comedy, and it’s really not.”
“That’s the effect we wanted to have, if nothing else,” Senes adds. “Tricking people into thinking it’s one kind of movie, and then … ”
For its first hour, Sissy plays like a gossipy comedy about the world’s worst friends, full of passive-aggressive jabs and sidelong glances. But once the blood starts flowing, it’s (quite literally) undammable, spurting from cavities with great gusto and special effects straight out of a B-movie, viscous entrails and all. That, says Barlow, is an ode to “the bros”.
Senes corrects her: “Not just the bros!”
They settle on “gore hounds”.
Sissy has just been nominated for three Aacta awards, including best film. “It’s very cool for a horror comedy to be sitting next to Elvis,” Barlow says.
Senes hopes it might signal a resurgence of Australian genre cinema. “Horror is what people internationally think of, when they think of Australian cinema. The rest of the world thinks of those films more than, in many ways, we do. I think it’s important to zoom out and take a little more of a macro lens on the cinema we’re making, as opposed to the echo chamber within Australia.”
Sissy is in cinemas around Australia now and is available to stream on Shudder in the UK and US.