Directed by John Hyams
Screenplay by Katelyn Crabb & Kevin Williamson
Starring Gideon Adlon, Bethlehem Million, Dylan Sprayberry, Marc Menchaca, & Jane Adams.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay
Turn back, lest ye be spoiled.
As we’re still living in the COVID-19 pandemic, despite many wanting to convince themselves otherwise, the era of COVID-19-inspired films is upon us, and the horror genre is milking it for all its worth already. While a lot of bad, low budget horror has been using the pandemic as an easy, costless backdrop for horror stories, some great low and bigger budget films have been offering up genuinely scary efforts that draw off the anxiety and isolation throughout the macabre global COVID-19 situation. The latest of those offerings is Sick—co-written by Katelyn Crabb and the writer of Scream, Kevin Williamson—a story about two friends, Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Bethlehem Million), who leave the busy city to quarantine at Parker’s isolated family lake house, but it becomes clear there’s someone else lurking, and the two young women are confronted with sudden, shocking violence.
Sick works very well as a COVID-19-era slasher, transposing slasher cliches and tropes cleverly into the current global pandemic with just as much dark humour as blood. The Gothic qualities of the pandemic are bolstered by interesting moments like a brief, albeit important unspoken connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne that reveals so much about the role of popular culture in situations like the spread of COVID-19, or the initial uncanny revelation of the masked killer. The thematic cherry on top is that while Parker and Miri are being hunted, and they’re the sympathetic core of Sick, one of them specifically becomes an embodiment of the privilege that has so glaringly been a problematic focal point for so many who’ve seen with their own eyes that the rich and the poor have been living out two vastly different existences during this pandemic.
It wouldn’t be a Kevin Williamson slasher without a bit of metatextuality, would it? His writing in the Scream screenplay forever altered the genre, and in Sick, he returns with some new thoughts—helped by co-writer Katelyn Crabb—about pop culture in the pandemic age. At one point, Parker and Miri are joined unexpectedly at the lake house by DJ (Dylan Sprayberry), defeating the purpose of a quarantine. DJ relates a foolish urban legend to his friends, originally told to him by his aunt, after which he states: “And my Aunt Libby‘s a Christian who doesn‘t lie.” Miri makes a point to say that this is, indeed, an urban legend, going further to mention it “migrated from Europe” based on an older folk tale. She says it’s based on a story called “The Bosom Serpent,” and this is partly true. The folk tale is old, but the name “The Bosom Serpent” is actually from a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne titled “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent.” This is where co-writers Crabb and Williamson bring their critique of pop culture into the mix. This moment is a smart commentary on how misinformation and pop culture collide to perpetuate myths, especially harmful ones, to the point where it’s difficult to tell the origin point; evidenced by Miri, who clearly knows part of the story but doesn’t recognise that Hawthorne’s version of the tale is where she got the name, which is not itself the origin. We’re seeing so much of it throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as misinformation and pop culture mix, from the Twitter feeds of famous people spreading false stories, to the news media of right-wind-funded organisations pushing dangerous conspiracies, and beyond. While the tale of the serpent is far less troublesome, its suggestions about pop culture connects to the reality of our global society today.
Evoking Hawthorne plays out further in that Hawthorne’s story was an allegorical one about egotism and selfishness, and the idea that egotism is only cured by forgetting oneself in favour of another, however it may come about in the end. Once the masked killer’s motivations are revealed the film shifts more focus onto Parker and her bourgeois sense of privilege. Just the fact that Parker and Miri are able to go off to a big comfy house by the lake to quarantine is privilege in and of itself. That’s juxtaposed against the opening scene in which we watch a soon-to-be-victim go to a fairly busy grocery store masked up, returning to his regular apartment building where he has to stay masked until he gets to his apartment before wiping down his groceries with disinfectant wipes; he’s completely immersed in the reality of the pandemic, whereas Parker and Miri can jet off to bougie paradise for however long. Miri even scolds Parker that it “isn‘t a vacation, it‘s a quarantine,” and the latter replies: “A quarantine in style!” Miri takes the pandemic more seriously than Parker in general, who seems a bit ‘whatever’ about it all. It’s later, after the revelation of the killers, that we discover just how out-of-touch and bougie Parker is compared to Miri and others. We already found out she’d gone to a party, and made out with somebody, but the killers eventually reveal that Parker’s little night out was connected to a bunch of COVID-19 transmissions and the death of the killers’s youngest son. While Parker tries to act like she might not actually be responsible, the fact that she attended the party and is positive for COVID-19 makes her privilege glaringly obvious, compounded by the fact that she clearly doesn’t know she has the virus, hasn’t considered she’s asymptomatic, and she’s probably passing COVID-19 to Miri since they’ve been unmasked in close quarters together. Of course Parker doesn’t deserve to be hunted down and killed, yet there’s a moral quandary her bougie privilege and its ramifications brings up for the audience, ultimately hinging upon our own individual beliefs about the pandemic and its seriousness.
Hawthorne fits perfectly into the film overall because Sick is a contemporary Gothic tale in several senses. There’s a presence of death everywhere, from the COVID-19 pandemic as the film’s backdrop, to the uses of contemporary Gothic language. Some great moments of language that lean into the Gothic happen throughout the film, such as the Gothic double-entendre language Miri uses to describe the bougie lake house (i.e. “sick, disgusting“); even better combined with the current pandemic as part of the film’s subject, showing how newer, younger language often subverts older meaning, giving the film’s Gothic language even more potency. My favourite is the brief use of “ghosted,” as Parker talks about a recent ex. By far the most Gothic, apart from the literal death (whether pandemic deaths or slasher kills) surrounding the film, is when the masked killer stalking Miri and Parker at the lake house is revealed as two killers; a deeply Gothic, uncanny use of doubles. This uncanniness also connects back to the oldest Gothic literature by way of the masked killers as a father-son duo (accompanied by mom later, too). Many of the earliest Gothic stories—and many still today—involve families or generations of families and murder, typically in the name of revenge, cementing Sick as a very Gothic contemporary slasher.
Parker’s an imperfect (potential) slasher victim, which makes Sick far more interesting than a lot of run-of-the-mill slasher films out there, past or present. We’re often inherently asked, or rather pushed, to identify with the victims in slasher films, and especially when it comes to the Final Girl/Victim, who’s typically meant to be perceived as a purely innocent character; this has changed over the years since the days of ‘don’t do drugs, don’t drink, don’t have sex’ and Jason Voorhees won’t kill you in the 1980s/1990s, but it hasn’t changed that much. Sick instead pushes harder on our morality, asking us to identify with Parker, and also with the killers (at least to a certain extent). Other slashers have made their killers a little sympathetic, some of whom are victims of vicious pranks or seeking revenge for murdered/assaulted loved ones. Sick’s focus on the pandemic and the behaviour of the privileged urges us far more to sympathise with the killers; and, unless you’re one of the privileged or a right-wing conspiracy theorist, it’s not that hard. Sick rises above a lot of other modern slasher horror by pulling many of our real lives into the foreground. Best of all, the film crystallises so much social rage about inequality without having to drench the screenplay in moralising dialogue, hiding most of its critique behind beloved slasher cliches and tropes.