Besides maybe the horny-old-biddies football comedy 80 For Brady being inexplicably set in 2017, the new straight-to-Peacock slasher Sick is likely to be the most conceptually bizarre period piece of the season. The COVID-19 pandemic might be waning, but it is still ongoing, which makes screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s decision to set Sick in the early-pandemic days of Spring 2020 a little confusing, if not outright immoral. COVID-themed horror that takes advantage of the pandemic’s of-the-moment novelty and finance-forgiving social isolation is now a three-year-old gimmick at this point, with early standouts like the excellent screenlife ghost story Host getting produced & released in the same timeframe when Sick is set. So, why would Williamson bother stepping outside his highly successful slasher franchise Scream to dial the clock back to those early COVID days, when that’s already such an overcrowded market? Apparently, it’s because he’s been itching to complain about people who are a little too zealous & militant about mask-wearing, social-distancing safety measures in public life, and he couldn’t be satisfied venting about it in a Facebook rant like every other Gen-X crank, so he made a feature film instead.
In its opening hour, Sick appears to take the ambient terror of COVID very seriously, likening it to the intangible menace of horrors like Final Destination, The Happening, and Skinamarink. Again, this is a period piece set in the early wiping-down-your-groceries era of the pandemic, when coherent public understanding of how COVID spreads—let alone vaccines—had yet to formulate. There’s an oppressive paranoia in all public life that’s distinct to that era, illustrated by how a single cough in a grocery store has all other shoppers shooting daggers in your direction. The tension is instantly high, and the vibes are instantly bad, which is a great start for a lean, low-budget slasher with only 80 minutes of playtime. It’s also a great excuse to isolate a slasher’s teens-in-peril victims, who plan to ride the pandemic out by self-quarantining in a cabin in the woods. The knife-wielding killer who stalks them also comes pre-masked, as was the fashion (and legitimate safety precaution) of the time. All of this COVID-based terror is cleverly considered, but once the killer’s face & motives are revealed, Williamson’s screenplay devolves from we’re-all-in-this-together societal camaraderie into bitchy “Some of you are taking this pandemic stuff a little too seriously” apathy, and all of the tension gives way to eyerolls & jerk-off motions.
As often as Williams is determined to step on rakes in the last few pages of his screenplay, a lot of Sick‘s faults are smoothed over by DTV action director John Hyams’s knack for bone-crunching impact & small-scale visual spectacle. The novelty of COVID horror is fading, and the basic tropes of the home-invasion slasher are so familiar that Williamson made a name for himself mocking them in a meta-horror franchise nearly three decades ago, but Hyams manages to make Sick feel consistently thrilling & surprising from moment to moment. Yes, we have already seen Jason Voorhees emerge from Crystal Lake as an unkillable ghoul, but have we ever seen him thrust his blade at victims from under the water, like a deadly-sharp Jaws fin? Yes, we’ve already seen teens chased around a remote cabin after enjoying a few hand-rolled joints, but rarely with such creative, dynamic blocking & fight choreography – since most independent first-wave slashers of that ilk were made by youngsters who enjoyed a few beers & joints on-set themselves. Honestly, Sick has all the hallmarks of a classic slasher: style, efficiency, brutality, novelty, and boneheaded reactionary politics that sour nearly all of those merits. According to that scorecard, Hyams has acquitted himself, Williamson has embarrassed everyone and, as is always true, Jane Adams (whose role I won’t spoil) deserves better.