Of all the terrible fads birthed by the millennial internet – pastel pink, GIF keyboards, the phrase “Netflix and chill” – the Instagram influencer at least makes for a campy archetype on screen. Her presence – and it is unfailingly a her – in film and TV signals the arrival of something unhinged: she is either a stalking victim, or, worse, a Francophile; often conniving and always a liar.
Into this lineage drops Sissy, Australian writer-director duo Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’s second feature (following 2017’s For Now). Acquired by horror streaming service Shudder ahead of its buzzy SXSW debut earlier this year, it’s a truly oddball slasher comedy – though it makes the case, at least initially, that the influencer might just be … boring?
“I am loved. I am special. I am enough,” its title character (Aisha Dee, The Bold Type) intones in the film’s opening scenes, spouting rote mantras that even she struggles to believe. She’s conducting a guided meditation for her adoring viewers that could easily double as a sleep aid, were it not for a brief interjection to plug the heinously named “Elon Mask” – a beauty product surely as slimy as its namesake.
In front of her lies the requisite ring light, illuminating the smile unnervingly plastered on her face. Behind her: a set straight from a mid-2010s Pinterest board (or some AI-generated estimation of it), complete with fake plants, wicker baskets, and candy-coloured rugs.
There’s an anonymising feeling to the whole affair. It’s no wonder all 200,000 of her followers – and counting – are desperate to project themselves onto her, their heart-eye emojis and quasi-religious declarations (“You saved my life!”) flooding her notifications.
To them, she’s the wellness guru to the masses; in truth, she’s a bit of a void, slumping around a house littered with half-empty glasses and unwashed dishes with only fan mail to keep her company.
She mumbles her way through social interactions and spends her days mostly alone, watching reality TV and wolfing down cold pizza. Which is to say: she is entirely too relatable.
A chance encounter with an old pal at a pharmacy breaks her out of her stupor. Emma (Barlow) was her BFF when she still went by Sissy, the primary school nickname she’s since abandoned – for obvious reasons.
In flashbacks, Cecilia – as she calls herself now – dances to long-forgotten 00s pop and crushes on a baby-faced Jake Gyllenhaal with Emma by her side, both of them making starry-eyed promises to be friends for life.
Cut to the present day and the pair have lost touch, though Emma is quick to invite Cecilia, last minute, to her hen’s weekend just outside Canberra.
Before long, they’re bundling up with the rest of the gang – Emma’s fiancée (Lucy Barrett), and a ragtag group of friends that includes Yerin Ha (Halo) and a supremely saucy Daniel Monks (better known for his work on stage) – and speeding off towards their pastoral getaway. For a second, everything feels serendipitous.
Of course, it doesn’t last.
The omens, to paraphrase that other millennial craze, start coming and they don’t stop coming. The body count begins before they’ve even reached their destination – in the shape of the unluckiest roo since Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, splattered across their windscreen in an on-the-nose sign of what’s to come.
They’ve barely settled in when Cecilia comes face to face with her former tormentor: Alex (a deliciously venomous Emily De Margheriti), who once made Cecilia’s life hell in the playground. (Cue the “Sissy’s a sissy!” chants.)
Their decades-old feud is very much alive and well.
“I can’t help but find it all a little bit ironic that, of all people, Sissy is preaching about mental health,” Alex spits out at a dinner party. Cecilia’s resolve buckles: she retreats, through tears, to the bathroom, trying unsuccessfully to soothe herself with her own quack remedies.
Up until this point, Barlow and Senes have mostly eschewed all-out horror for a claustrophobic tension brimming with unsettling images: a freaky painting in the house that invades Cecilia’s dreams, a mosquito whose buzz is dialled up to an ear-splitting squeal.
Soon enough, though, Cecilia sheds her wallflower persona to join her influencer forebears in utter derangement. She snaps – in gory fashion.
Dee is no stranger to the insanity of the internet. Her breakout role in beloved TV show The Bold Type – a marshmallowy fantasy of digital media which dared to imagine a world where online journalists receive pay cheques instead of anxiety issues – saw her as a social media manager, who, over the course of five seasons, goes viral for all the wrong reasons, revolts against her bosses, and eventually gets fired.
It’s not hard to imagine Cecilia as a bloodthirstier version of that character, finally exacting revenge on all those who have dismissed her.
We might see it as a perverse coming of age: the influencer who, faced with the offline world, finally understands the value of life – and death.
Out in the Australian bush, Cecilia is free to carry out her grisly rampage with little consequence, executing her new companions with hyperbolic glee.
(In Cecilia’s defence, being stuck in Canberra could make anyone murderous.)
Sissy is certainly light on theme, and many of its grand aims slowly unravel as the film progresses. It doesn’t quite commit to its meditation on the aftershocks of childhood trauma, nor does Emma and Cecilia’s once-obsessive friendship ever reach its queer potential.
More successful are its gags at the wellness industry’s expense. A crystal (what else?) becomes a murder weapon; in between kills, Cecilia takes breathers to broadcast sermons on self-care to her followers.
Even so, the constant send-ups of therapy-speak can get a little grating; multiple references to being “triggered” play like the funniest punchlines of 2015.
What Sissy lacks in originality, though, it makes up for in blood: the bucketloads of it that spill from mouths, brains and guts in lo-fi special effects, much of which appears to have been done practically – think Play-Doh viscera and squishy heads.
It’s not exactly the sharpest satire, but with all its B-movie stylings, it is delightfully schlocky – and proof that influencers still make ripe fodder for the silver screen, even as they grow increasingly tiresome in real life.
Sissy is in cinemas November 3.