One of the early surprises of Sick, a tight and serviceable slasher flick from the Scream writer Kevin Williamson, is not the numerous jump scares nor stalker set-up but how triggering it is to hear Anderson Cooper’s voice describe 98% of the US population in lockdown. The pandemic never really ended, but there’s a specific era of early Covid that has distinctly passed and remains, for most people, locked in a memory box somewhere – a time of fear, uncertainty, contempt, callousness, Clorox-ing groceries, and inescapable (and incredulous) news reports, also known as April 2020.
Sick, directed by John Hyams and now streaming on Peacock, explicitly takes the horror of pre-vaccine, first-wave Covid shutdown – 273,880 cases and rising on 3 April, according to an intro slide – as its starting point. A college-age single guy named Tyler (Joel Courtney) performs the ritual of masking and sanitation for trawling empty grocery shelves. There’s no toilet paper. A woman holding a baby guilt-trips her way into the last box of tissues. Taped arrows on the floor offer an illusion of control. And a random number texting Tyler turns sinister.
It’s all, in other words, familiar territory for anyone who either lived through Covid in the US or has seen a slasher horror movie. Sick differentiates itself by combining the two, levying the requisite body count with jabs at Covid hygiene theater and, more ludicrously, the flammable divide between those who took the virus seriously and those who did not. Most TV shows and films which have taken early Covid as a premise have flopped, the pandemic either being too dated, cliched or simply off-putting to shape into entertaining plot. But Williamson knows how to write a horror script – Sick offers moderate to intense thrills delivered in a compact frame whose Covid 2020 specificity adds more to the tension than it distracts.
Back at his place, Tyler isn’t long for this world, though still filmed with enough creepy suspense and strategic angling that I, a person with an admittedly low threshold for jump-scares, had to cover my face. Cut to a California college, shut down that April for an indefinite period that rich sorority girl Parker (Gideon Adlon, daughter of Pamela) plans to ride out at her family’s remote mountain lake “cabin” (read: rustic mansion) with friend Miri (Bethlehem Million). Williamson and co-writer Katelyn Crabb slot the two Gen Z students into two Covid archetypes: Miri as the type-A, safety-conscious rule-enforcer chiding Parker for not wearing her mask nor testing, and Parker the type who internet-openly partied her way into lockdown. (The film’s handling of phones and social media posts – text bubbles and Instagram interface overlaid on the screen – feels slightly off, but accurate enough to work.)
An oversized, creaking log cabin two miles from any neighbors – “I told you, I know how to 2020,” says Parker in one of several knowing lines – is, of course, an ideal location for a cat-and-mouse game with an all-black, masked intruder wielding a knife, who slinks around even before Parker’s possessive, pesky on-and-off boyfriend DJ (Dylan Sprayberry) shows up unannounced. Roughly the first third of the film’s admirable 83-minute runtime effectively tightens the screws on the trio’s endangerment and their creeping realization of it. Hyams and cinematographer Yaron Levy make the most of the nighttime cabin set-up, with several roving shots capturing both the intruder’s stealthy hunt and the prey’s innocent hangout – smoking weed, lying on the floor, one relationship-setting conversation each between the lovers and the friends. Every innocuous cabin weekend instrument becomes either a weapon, a trap, or a tool.
It’s all standard but relatively well-structured stuff, particularly as the bloodshed begins to rain down in a well-paced rhythm of attack, respite, scream and scramble until a twist that is genuinely unexpected if a bit far-fetched, even for the genre. (And that’s all I can say.) Compared with last summer’s Scream-aspiring cabin horror hit Bodies Bodies Bodies, whose balance of humor and gore I preferred, Sick has a more pointed, less foreseeable reveal and looser handle on its characters. In the handful of carefree moments afforded to Parker, Adlon is believable as a self-absorbed college student, and solid with the physicality of fear in a role that has her traversing miles. Million, by contrast, gets comparatively little to work with, her lines mostly serving to characterize Parker.
Which is fine – Sick is competent mid-level horror whose Covid container is tight enough to make the film’s 2020-ness feel fitting rather than dated. I wouldn’t necessarily choose to think about a drinking game based on Dr Fauci on CNN, as the girls play before all hell breaks loose, but it’s effective in conjuring an ominous feeling. If there are slasher rewards to reap from the real dread of that year, it could be far cornier, cheaper and less efficient than this.
Sick is available on Peacock in the US on 13 January and in the UK and Australia at a later date