Sick Tests Positive for Gory Fun

Movies Reviews horror movies
Sick Tests Positive for Gory Fun

It’s unclear whether moviegoers would rather new films address or ignore the COVID-19 pandemic. Flimsy masks and invasive Q-Tips feel like shorthand for this amorphous chunk of time that continues to seep into the everyday, innately horrifying in how all-encompassing it remains. John Hyams’ Sick leans into this, letting reality inform the horror.

Sick follows Miri (Bethlehem Million) and Parker (Gideon Adlon) who decide to quarantine in Parker’s dad’s holiday home. Like all genres, horror films are confined by a certain rhythm. Tension must be built and, at some point, broken. Practically, this is enacted in cycles: The protagonists are chased and then they are caught, they are caught and then they escape. COVID is cleverly utilized to interrupt and enhance these cycles, to varying degrees of success.

Kevin Williamson (who wrote the film alongside Katelyn Crabb) imbues Sick with the same cultural canniness of Scream but can’t entirely channel the vehemence and wry self-awareness that launched the 1996 film to stratospheric success. Scream unlocks a thrilling bitterness around the American teenage experience that Sick can’t mimic with its stripped-back scale.

The opening scene of the slasher is tasked with establishing the landscape of the film, both literally and figuratively—introducing the audience to the shape and figure of the killer, the degree of gore, the way in which horror will color the space. Sick opens with Tyler (Joel Courtney) shopping at the supermarket before receiving a series of ominous texts which leave him rushing back to his dorm room. Positioning the film within recent events works to ground the audience, who not too long ago were also watching similar CNN news reports while sanitizing a newly bought box of cereal. They are intimately acquainted with the language of fear that pervades the film.

Sick takes advantage of the audiences’ awareness, letting COVID-19 haunt the whole film, encouraging this eeriness to simmer in public spaces as people cast unsure glances behind masks. There is a mandated isolation that pervades this moment in history, hovering over the film, distorting the sound and feel. Yet as the twists roll in and character intentions are revealed, the film loses some of its poignancy. COVID-19 ends up being a crucial turning point, redirecting the climactic fight, but what initially feels thoughtfully integrated ends up as unsubstantiated social commentary. Engineering a plot around the setting and time frame remains an artistically unsatisfying way of structuring a story.

Hyams’ ease with the genre shows, especially in the earlier scenes at the lakeside mansion. He carefully weaves through identical teak hallways, holding shots on empty space or on an innocuous exchange before we realize something sinister is peeking from behind furniture, hanging on the edge of the frame. These long shots are effectively unsettling, threatening in their unsparing detail.

Voyeurism is implicit to the slasher genre, and each early glimpse of the black hoodie-clad killer compounds this. Certain camera angles are employed to affirm the horror of being watched, with a particularly heated early argument cleverly broken by a wide angle that only makes sense later, from the position of the killer. The central performances compound this horror with their ease and groundedness, highlighting how disconcerting it is to be young, carefree and unknowingly watched.

Sick thrives in the limited scope of the house, forcing their protagonists to squeeze through shrinking spaces in the first third of the film. Yet when Miri and Parker break out, the film still finds new ways of trapping them in tight corners, exposing our heroes’ vulnerabilities with every dimly lit terrain—one extended sequence on the lake feels particularly inventive.

Part of the fun of this genre is seeing how seemingly innocent moments inform the gruesome shape of the film. When the stakes are this high every moment could be the root of someone’s untimely death. Great slashers manage to construct a fragile sequence of interactions and objects that tumble down and exact a gory toll—Sick understands this better than most.

Director: John Hyams
Writer: Kevin Williamson, Katelyn Crabb
Starring: Gideon Adlon, Marc Menchaca, Jane Adams
Release Date: January 13, 2023 (Peacock)

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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