John Hyam’s Sick does one thing; thankfully, it does that thing pretty well.
Hyam’s previous film, Alone, was a similarly straightforward piece of genre formalism. Both films share the same singular goal: shoot people in peril. Unlike Alone, Sick comes with horror genre royalty in its byline. Kevin Williamson’s first feature screenplay since Scream 4, Sick is a cabin in the woods style slasher in the time of Covid. It is April 2020, and two college students (Gideon Adlon and Bethlehem Million) decide to quarantine together at a fancy, isolated cabin. And, as anyone who’s seen a horror film will already be well aware, no one is truly alone in an isolated cabin at night.
The first hour of this 84-minute film consists almost entirely of young people being stalked violently by an anonymous, knife-wielding killer. Unlike the other Williamson property this brings to mind, though, Sick is brutally simple in its structure and design. Hyams shoots the sequences in an aesthetically pleasing yet relatively predictable pattern. A character looking off into the distance in the foreground is juxtaposed with the appearance of a lurking figure in the background. By the time the character turns, the figure is nowhere to be seen. Cut to unrelated loud noise. Tracking shot around the corners of hallways. Repeat. Then, film an attack and chase sequence.
To Hyam’s credit, it is all strung together well. Yaron Levy’s camerawork is smooth. Andrew Drazek’s editing is crisp and keeps the momentum of sequences going. But this formula grows less and less interesting as the film rinses and repeats. The first 10 minutes are the most exciting, as this sequence is something of a discrete scene and is the first time we see the formula in action. The rest of the movie loses energy as it fails to do anything new. The locations change, but the strategy stays the same. Even when one character is fully isolated in the middle of a lake, Hyams finds a way to do more of the same.
Meanwhile, throughout the first two acts Williamson’s script uses Covid-19 as set dressing. Hokey references to the early months of the pandemic — no toilet paper at the convenience store, using sanitizing wipes on cereal boxes — feel like a strained attempt at making generic material relevant to the recent past. Then, the script makes its sharp left turn. With roughly 20 minutes left, this becomes a movie about the ramifications of one’s actions during the time of stay at home orders. To what end, I’m still unclear.
The whole exercise of Sick is rugged and unfulfilling. Snappy set pieces aside, the film reads half-formed. The narrative progresses a long way before any explanation is given for why this bloodshed is occurring, to the point where my mind flashed back to The Strangers. With the latter, the non-explanation is the point. Here, the delayed answer to the question only lays more expectations on that answer to be worth the investment. And it just isn’t. So once the well-made sequences grow repetitive, all that remains is the hollow final plot beat.
There have already been a handful of stabs at the “Covid era” horror film. One day, someone will crack it. But I have yet to see one that uses the shared cultural memory of 2020 effectively to evoke real terror. The closest I’ve seen is Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi. It’s no horror film, but it tightly captures a specific feeling, a fear of the unknown that is mostly absent in Sick. In Sick, the unknown is a plot device. And the fear, if it exists at all, is in the framing.
As always, thanks for reading!