Thanks to its quite odd pairing of collaborators, Sick is a movie awkwardly pulled in two directions at once. On the one hand, you have director John Hyams — who cut his teeth on two Universal Soldier movies, both with a big cult fanbase — bringing to this slasher his exceedingly brutal action choreography and viscerally intense aestheticization of that action (the hard, dull thud of body blows, the sharp crack of breaking bones), thereby allowing the genre a sense of real danger and immediacy it’s been lacking. On the other hand, you have screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who once gave the slasher a needed shot in the arm when he authored Wes Craven’s Scream (as well as the other entries in that series’ original quadrilogy). Administering the antidote of meta-text and self-awareness to the slasher in the mid-’90s, when all the competition was stuck adhering to the same repeatable formula, was a stroke of genius. But as 2011’s Scream 4 made painfully clear, what was appropriate for that time just isn’t the right way to challenge a chronically online generation for whom Scream is the formula, not the subversion.
Williamson, evidently, didn’t get that message. Sick’s screenplay is built around another winkingly self-aware conceptual gambit, albeit one obviously more geared toward our present moment: The slashing takes place at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the two primary targets, college roommates Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Bethlehem Million), have just started self-isolating together at the former’s big empty family cottage. There’s one immediate problem with this set-up — with only two characters to work with, how do you run up a body count? Williamson addresses this with the familiar trick of a pre-credits kill, and it’s also around this time that Sick establishes just how much social media will play a role in bringing more people into the narrative’s orbit. But aside from a few stern conversations about mask-wearing, keeping a six-foot distance from each other, and Miri’s comical penchant for spraying disinfectant all over everything she sees, Covid is only a light reality for the first half of Sick. And the point at which that does finally change, during a typically expository final act that makes explicit just how much Covid is motivating the action of the killers, is also when Sick succumbs to parody, or even worse, becomes just a thinly veiled rehash of Scream 4.
Thankfully, there’s a solid hour or so here that largely ignores the conceptual frame and just throws a couple of resourceful girls into battle with some all-dressed-in-black ninja assassins who’ve broken into their house. I haven’t seen Hyams’ only other stab at a thriller, 2020’s wilderness-set kidnapper flick Alone, but if that film musters the same practical suspense, the almost survivalist minutiae of tending to wounds and relying on tools of the surrounding environment to try and outmaneuver an ever-present threat — and does so without the distraction of Williamson — it’s now priority viewing. Hyams unabashedly treats the action in Sick not unlike he does in his Universal Soldier films, if only less choreographed to account for the amateur fighters on one side of the struggle. He does overly rely on his shaky cam and close-ups, especially during the first kill, but the way he dynamically moves the action through the space of the empty cottage, around the property, and to one particularly impressive night-time set piece at the center of a lake is consistently inventive and, most importantly, scary — which is the right combination of stimulants needed to reinvigorate this genre.
You can currently stream John Hyam’s Sick on Peacock.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 3.