Horror movies, like documentaries, have a knack for rolling the cameras whenever tragedy strikes. It didn’t come as much of a surprise when, mere months after COVID-19 locked most of the world down, we had one conceived and shot entirely over Zoom. It also wasn’t too much of a shock when cheap horror movies seizing on lockdowns and fears over a deadly virus started to pop up on VOD services. But it was only a matter of time before someone would make the first good entry about the pandemic, one that would find the perfect blend of executing genre thrills while seizing upon the moment to portray some of the insanity we’ve all dealt with for the past two years. That film has finally arrived with John Hyams’ Sick.
Fans of genre films probably know Hyams through his revival of the Universal Soldier franchise, TV shows like Z Nation and Black Summer, or his underrated 2020 thriller Alone. He’s proven himself an excellent craftsman, and whether it’s action or horror he knows the exact right way to give whatever material he works with a visceral edge that makes every moment hit as hard as it possibly can. In Sick, Hyams teams with Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson (co-writing with Katelyn Crabb) to pull off a slasher film with little-to-no bullshit. In April 2020, college students Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Beth Million) run off to one of their parents’ empty lake house to quarantine, only to find their first night interrupted by a masked assailant trying to kill them. Once the killer strikes, Sick turns into a relentless fight for survival, both from the unknown attacker and the virus.
It’s not just the excellent pacing, brutality, and no-nonsense structure that makes Sick so fun. It’s how Hyams’ direction knows exactly how to cater to viewers. The cold open, where someone falls victim to the killers after braving a grocery store, lays the red herrings and fake-outs on thick before turning into a full on brawl with stitched cuts to resemble a single take. Then there’s the lengthy build-up with Parker and Miri, the camera watches them wander around the house while the killer sneaks around in the background. Given Williamson’s hand in co-writing, some self-awareness should be expected, which Hyams uses to make it clear that everything in this film is a performance for audiences. Rather than trying to immerse people in its story, Sick indulges tropes and clichés with a wink and nude pointing-out of the screen. Hyams is here to entertain people first and foremost, and he’s got the skills behind the camera to make sure his targets are well taken care of.
Then there’s the action itself, where a pairing of director and writer pays off most. The Universal Soldier movies already prove Hyams knows how to direct action, and applying it to a horror context ratchets up the tension. People hurt easily, and when someone gets hit or injured it’s not the sort of thing from which someone can quickly recover. Dynamic camera movements, hard cuts, and an emphasis on how these characters interact with the spaces they find themselves running to or from raise stakes accordingly. Then there’s Williamson’s trademark of having protagonists give as well as they take when it comes to fighting, showing more ingenuity and cleverness than your average horror movie victim. This lends every showdown an element of surprise in how each side gains and loses the upper hand, while also making sure the intensity never lets up.
It’s best to discover for yourself how COVID enters the film, factoring heavily into final-act reveals. Williamson and Crabb’s screenplay doesn’t offer much in terms of any commentary or insight beyond how the pandemic can lead to reactionary responses. It’s more a fun time capsule in its portrayal of the early, frantic days of lockdown, which gives plenty of opportunities for some great gags involving masks and hand sanitizers. And there’s nothing wrong with that, given the adrenaline rush Sick provides in its scant, sub-90-minute runtime. Rather than aim high, Sick is happy to make the most of what it has to work with, and shows how sticking to the basics can still provide a hell of a fun time.
Sick premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.