Sick isn’t the first COVID horror movie, and it’s not even the first COVID genre movie at TIFF. Everyone’s tolerance for pandemic gags will vary and this home invasion slasher will test a lot of those limits. Kevin Williamson, the guy who gave us Scream, joined forces with Katelyn Crabb to pen a new horror movie that addresses the anger we’ve felt as we navigate this pandemic. Their story takes pieces of our horrific reality and slots it into a riff on our favorite slasher in an attempt to open a COVID rage release valve. It uses the horror to let us face our COVID anxieties by letting us feel the thrill of running from Ghostfacemask (is that anything?). That is, until it reminds us of the limitations of pandemic storytelling.
Gideon Aldon and Bethlehem Million lead as Parker and Miri, two gal pals with varying coronavirus risk tolerances. It’s April 2020, a time where we were beginning to bicker about whether particles could float eight feet outdoors, wiping down our groceries with disinfectant, and watching CNN for lockdown updates. Parker and Miri represent our varying approaches: Parker attending end-of-the-world parties and kissing strangers, Miri spraying aerosols into the air and worrying about later infecting her father. With lockdown orders in effect, the two head to Parker’s father’s isolated cabin, a luxurious home in the woods miles away from any neighbors. After settling in, there’s a jarring knock on the door and fears of floating particles are mixed with fears of intruders. With the house invaded, the girls are forced to participate in a ruthless and bloody game of cat and mouse that challenges our competing desires to get help while being as far away as possible from any human and their droplets.
In a lot of ways, this film is reminiscent of what James Wan did with Malignant: after many succeeding films attempted to mirror his style, Williamson has come back to reclaim it. Sick opens with a modern retelling of the Casey Becker kill, and is followed by similar twists, or beats you’ll see coming if you are a fan of Williamson’s meta slashers (you can almost feel Randy Meeks narrating certain moments). It’s not built like a subversive slasher; it’s built like an ass-kicking invasion movie that still nods to things like Jason Voorhees in a way Williamson is exceptional at. Wes Craven (who directed the first four Scream movies) had a way of making you hyper-aware and wary of doors, and director John Hyams (Alone) works with Williamson’s script to make a worthy successor to those movies. He shoots the subtle terror of open doors and empty doorways beautifully, and his horror action pieces are thrilling and terrifying. The bulk of the film’s scares are predictable, but they’re utterly effective and are built on creative sequences like a floating dock scene we’ll probably all gush about the rest of this year.
But then there’s the third act. There’s a world where this finale will be divisive, or it might simply render the core themes forgettable. The final reveal takes the movie from a place of “oh hell ya, this is Scream but in COVID,” to “woof, this is just Scream but in COVID.” I’ll spare detailed spoilers, but the twist is a stark reminder of why COVID movies suck. The big reveal is a shallow reflection of pandemic anxieties that feels tasteless and comes with a cloudy message about the manifestation of our risk tolerances and the accompanying rage. It had to go as far as it did in order to make the motivations believable, but in doing so, it chucks a gut-wrenching and upsetting beat into an otherwise enjoyable scary movie. By playing the same game that Scream does, it swipes away the idea that this is nodding to Williamson’s more prominent work and, instead, makes it feel like someone retread that story to imagine it with a pandemic twist that probably could have remained in headcanon.
It’s 2022 and that means that this film festival comes with flooding into crowded theaters that have paper signs that say masks are “recommended.” It’s a strange and uncomfortable time, and Sick, an otherwise expertly built and intense home invasion thrill ride, reminds us of it.
Sick premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival