Are you over the COVID pandemic, or are you over COVID pandemic horror films? Probably both. This makes “Sick” a hard sell: A horror movie born in the pandemic era, set in April 2020, when all but a handful of holdout states in the U.S. had issued stay-at-home orders and buying hand sanitizer from distilleries was easier than from the local CVS. This is not a moment anybody wants to revisit in 2022, or possibly ever, but writer Kevin Williamson and director John Hyams ask us to do exactly that in their mean, economically made COVID slasher, two words that read as incongruous side by side but pair far better than viewers weary of contemporary outbreak horror could anticipate.
COVID isn’t over, after all–neither the virus, though the vaccines and treatments have slowed its spread, nor the social paranoia, which years from now may prove to be the pandemic’s greatest lingering effect on the way we all live. In “Sick,” “years from now” don’t matter, just as they didn’t matter in 2020 when we collectively cared about getting through the day.
The film opens on one seemingly unimportant young lad who, in slasher tradition, doesn’t get through the day after he comes back to his apartment from a semi-successful scouring of grocery shelves and gets knifed to death by a black-clad figure. Cut to best friends Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Bethlehem Million), college students mountain-bound for a break from college, and more so COVID; Parker’s dad owns an exorbitant, scarcely used lakeside lodge, where the nearest neighbor is miles away over the water, thus satisfying Miri’s strict distancing requirements. But one uninvited guest, who doesn’t follow CDC guidelines, breaks into the chalet and throws our leads into a bloody cat-and-mouse chase where worries over masks and droplets become quaint.
“Sick” is good. It’s unreasonably good, in fact, because slashers are enjoying a revival, and making a slasher that stands out in the current crop of “kids get dead” films is hard; and because making films that take place within the numbing reality of COVID living is harder. Steven Soderbergh’s “Kimi” nimbly pulls this trick off with a casual shrug, blithely acknowledging COVID as a fact of life without making a big deal about it. Not everybody is Steven Soderbergh. “Grey’s Anatomy,” in starkest contrast, made a huge screaming deal about COVID, and while the show had built-in justification as a medical drama series, the constant reinforcement of our existential dilemma added excess pomp and gravity to otherwise fluffy content. That’s a drag.
But horror, even when it’s playful and light on its feet, is the place where audiences’ existential dilemmas go to sleep, so “Sick” gets away with what scads of COVID-forward films and TV shows can’t: Wafting the very worst part of the pandemic in our faces, the human part, the part where people all over the world, but in the U.S. in particular, just stopped giving a shit about each other and waged culture wars that were, and still are, meaningless at best and destructive at worst. The movie jams a thumb into this fresh wound, pulverizing nerves by stripping the slasher blueprint to the bare necessities and building to a climax that, whether you still wear a mask in public or never bothered even when the U.S. death toll ticked to 1,000,000 served, will strike as confrontational.
That’s the point. Williamson and Hyams patently want their viewers to think about the part they’ve played in COVID’s reign, but their efforts pack so much propulsion that they force split-second considerations instead of cool reflection; this brusque choice is likely a factor of COVID’s immediacy, but could also be a critique of the audience. It’s been two years. If you can’t rattle off the top of your head the many ways you reacted to lockdown, isolation, fear, and unshakeable paranoia, then you’re bluffing yourself and“Sick” isn’t going to be your movie (though arguably it’s the folks who haven’t faced their pandemic selves yet who need to see it most). “Sick” rewards the self-aware and provokes those in denial. It’s a clever film.
It’s also a film where serrated death could lurk in every nook and cranny, and where atmospheric suspicion weighs heavily in nearly every frame. If “Sick” isn’t raising our anxiety, it’s giving our eyes a workout; Hymans’ cinematographer, Yaron Levy, moves the camera like he’s running a 5K when he’s setting up and paying off tension, following Parker and Miri through the house and beyond as the killer stalks them. Momentum is critical. Think of “Sick” as an intersection between “Scream,” Williamson’s best-known film, and “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” Hyams’ best-known film, with 30 fewer minutes of running time, and voila: You’ve got a lean, relentless, merciless exercise in suspense, punctuated with desperate, impeccably choreographed violence and equally as desperate performances from the principal actors.
“Sick” propels its characters to where they need to be without a wasted moment. Parker and Miri’s drive to the mountains and idyllic few hours before the slasher gets slashing are shaded in with simple, low-key dialogue establishing “sins” instead of “themes.” Miri is freaking out at the prospect of going anywhere; Parker plays by COVID’s rules but she also wants to have a good time. She’s young. She won’t get these years of her life back if she spends them all in a hermetically sealed bubble. What “Sick” accomplishes by letting its 20-somethings be 20-somethings is establish a baseline empathy for these girls, such that we understand them and care about them in a vacuum, divorced from our personal feelings about COVID proscriptions and advisories; rather than revel in their impending doom, per the customary slasher audience dynamic, we want them to be okay, and that’s after watching them interact in just a few scenes.
Compassion is a refreshing change of pace, and of course, pace is the film’s best pleasure. There isn’t another 2022 horror production like “Sick,” where not a second is spared on material that doesn’t push the plot along and where we pass every beat white-knuckling any hard surface conveniently in reach. The blunt examination of COVID ideologies is ingenious, though difficult to fully unpack without giving away the third act, but it’s the filmmaking’s ruthlessness that’ll catch in your mind. [A]