The slasher genre has always been rather ‘low culture,’ but by the mid-2000s and beyond, it was practically considered to be the dumb, inbred cousin of so-called ‘elevated horror movies.’ People became more interested in original, more psychological, and twisted films like The Descent and Hereditary, rather than Children of the Corn: Genesis or Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort. It says something that the most acclaimed slasher films of the 2010s are those which fundamentally parody the genre itself (The Final Girls, Cabin in the Woods, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil).
Something has changed in the past year or two, however, with the slasher genre getting a gory injection of new blood. Films like X, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and even Barbarian switched up the slasher style without becoming mere satires, and were fun, nasty, and above all unique little gems. The new Scream film from 2022 was also a surprise critical darling and box office hit, more than 25 years since Kevin Williamson wrote the first installment.
Williamson, with his assistant Katelyn Crabb, had been working on another film at the time, which was then known simply as an ‘untitled pandemic thriller.’ That’s actually a somewhat apt summation of the Peacock original film directed by John Hyams. Sick is a minimalist slasher thriller that strips away all the excess B.S. from the genre and digs deep into the thrills with expert craftsmanship and witty Covid-era commentary.
Sick Is a Slasher Horror Movie for Pandemic People
Sick is extremely simple, at least until the end — the less said, the better. The film takes place in April 2020, as lockdowns and quarantines were affecting the world and the United States had a toilet paper problem. Yes, it’s one of several horror films to utilize the pandemic, but Sick is one of the good ones. It makes sense that Covid would influence so many horror films; the virus itself might as well be a serial killer.
Transferring the traditional ‘cabin in the woods’ template of so many horror films into a more topical ‘quarantine in the woods’ slasher is a fairly clever idea, ensuring that Sick‘s pandemic themes aren’t forgotten so easily. Parker and Miri head to the former’s family cabin, a sprawling estate with remote controlled fireplaces and a lakeside view. The college students are quarantining ahead of the school’s decision to send kids home during the pandemic, and they do so in style. “I know how to 2020,” Parker says as she unbags junk food and liquor in the expansive wooden kitchen.
However, and in what feels like a technologically contemporary nod to the cold open phone calls in Williamson’s Scream, Parker is receiving text messages from a stranger who may or may not be a stalker. There may be more people in this cozy quarantine than first believed.
Sick Is Quick to Get to the Scary Point
All of this is developed with brisk expositional speed, wasting little time. After an extended, intense cold open (a favorite of Williamson’s), it only takes nine minutes to get the scares, suspense, and atmospheric dread. Sick is proficient at introducing a subplot without ever getting distracted from its main mission — making viewers jump. Before her quarantine, Parker attended a party and made sure to broadcast her flirtatious make-out session with a stranger live on Instagram, flaring up the jealousies of her ex-boyfriend, D.J. That’s about all this film gives audiences by way of exposition.
It makes sense, then, that the editing (mostly from Mark Dennison and Jeremy Lerman) is swift and uncompromising in its cogent march toward immediate horror. Hyams (Alone, Z Nation) knows exactly what kind of film this is, using its efficient little script as a blueprint upon which he builds his directorial house of horrors. As such, Sick is a quick, tight slasher film that’s fast to get in and knows when to get out, delivering effective frights in the process.
The majority of Sick finds Parker and Miri hunted by the same killer from the opening of the film, but it never gets monotonous. The script continuously finds fresh ways to create suspense within the traditional framework of a slasher killer chasing teenagers with a knife, and Hyams keeps it visually inventive. Slasher films generally have an ensemble cast, allowing a variety of different kills to avoid repetition. Despite only having three main victims, and far fewer deaths than most horror movies, it’s genuinely impressive how Sick never feels repetitive.
Young Actors Help Sell Sick
Of course, the characters all have much less personality and development than Williamson’s Scream, The Faculty, or The Vampire Diaries; they almost have to be relatively empty for the film to move at such a fast pace and with such efficiency. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How many times have horror movies attempted to flesh out a character (her father died when she was young, her mother has cancer, he has a bullied brother, they have a will-they-or-won’t they relationship, etc.), always at the expense of momentum and terror, only to fail miserably? People generally don’t remember the characters, just how they die.
The actors are good, though, and manage to broadly reflect youth without getting bogged down with the details. Gideon Adlon (Blockers, With Hunt, The Craft: Legacy) gives an athletic, confident performance as Parker, and while the young Bethlehem Million as Miri isn’t featured as much, she’s good at expressing pain and paranoia. The great Jane Adams and Marc Menchaca steal the scenes they’re in and continue to prove why they’re such pros, albeit underrated ones.
Sick Is About the Horror of Covid and the Meaning of Blame
Sick isn’t really about its characters, though they do express one of Williamson’s themes. He’s always been interested in youth culture and individualism, whether through sarcastic self-awareness in Scream or The Faculty, or with sometimes embarrassing genuineness when creating teen shows like Dawson’s Creek, Wasteland, or The Secret Circle. In Sick, Williamson and Crabb explore how the experiences of youth and individuality can come into conflict with something as massive as Covid-19.
While Sick is ultimately a vehicle for thrills and chills, it does interrogate some crucial current questions in the post-pandemic landscape. Does blame matter, whether it’s ‘patient zero’ or Wuhan, China? Where does personal responsibility end and societal responsibility begin? Many people were willing to risk their own health during the worst of Covid, but what is our responsibility to protect others in a time of crisis? When your own decision to not wear a mask, quarantine, or get tested has catastrophic effects on others even if it doesn’t bother you, how culpable are you for the lives of others?
Those are somewhat heady themes, but Sick doesn’t stab the audience to death with them. The film insinuates more than it propagates these ideas and questions, choosing to let them linger in the backdrop in favor of a very entertaining, speedy little slasher film. Sick is lean meat cooked rare, with no fat to be found, and nourishing all the same.
Produced by Miramax and Outerbanks Entertainment, Sick will be streaming on Peacock beginning January 13.