Give Kevin Williamson credit: The screenwriter behind the Scream series isn’t afraid to recycle his greatest hits. His new addition to the slasher-film canon opens on a young man named Tyler (Joel Courtney) wandering the aisles of a cleaned-out supermarket. It’s April 3rd, 2020. Covid-19 cases are exponentially rising. Most of the country is in full lockdown mode. Everyone is masked. Forget about finding toilet paper.
While he’s browsing for some shelter-in-place essentials, Tyler gets a text: “Wanna party?” He has no idea who’s asking. Later, while he’s checking out, the same person texts again (“Nice ass”), along with a pic. The text is coming from inside the building, but good luck trying to pick out a potential homicidal maniac behind a sea of masked faces. When Tyler arrives home, he’s still getting creepy messages while moving through his apartment… until he happens to notice, reflected in his TV screen, a black-clad figure holding a hunting knife. Tussle. Hunt. Escape. Momentary sense of being out of danger. Surprise stab. Dead.
Yes, this does sound familiar, though keen, casual and/or incredibly stoned viewers will notice a few major differences from the iconic prologue that opens Williamson’s 1996 meta-horror magnum opus. First, the celebrity victim is a dude, though for fans of The Kissing Booth movies, his early exit will be just as painful as Drew Barrymore’s bloody dispatch. Second, he’s primarily getting texts instead of constant phone calls, because technology. And third: There’s a torn-from-yesterday’s-headlines issue thrown into the mix. Sick has the distinction of being one of the first, if not the first, slasher flicks to fully take advantage of our collective 2020 experience in watching “normal” go out the window — to meld the vulnerability we all felt in those early days of the pandemic with the predatory scares of a killer on the loose. It may not be tres wink-nudge, yet the vibe is still: What if Scream, but Covid?
That’s this scary movie’s big distinguishing factor, which starts streaming on Peacock on January 13th — which is indeed a Friday — and if you’re willing to sit through an otherwise stock take on the ol’ teens-and-terror-at-a-lake-house chestnut in the name of Covidsploitation curiosity, have at it. Our two heroes are Parker (Blockers’ Gideon Adlon) and Mari (Bethlehem Million), both college students who are quarantining together in a remote, swank cabin owned by the former’s dad. The unexpected arrival of Parker’s on-again/off-again boyfriend, D.J. (Dylan Sprayberry) complicates things a bit, especially since he’s angry about an Instagram post detailing her hooking up at a recent party with another dude. Meanwhile, she’s getting some mysterious, aggressive texts from an unknown person. And wait a second, isn’t that the same black-masked killer we saw earlier, only now he’s lurking around the lake house….
Until we get to a third-act twist (more on that, spoiler-free, in a second), director John Hyams, Williamson and co-writer Katelyn Crabb gift us with a perfectly functional, if predictable catch-and-release horror scenario. Cat with knife and other sharp implements goes after collegiate mice, in other words; mice scurry away, but cat still has tricks up his sleeve. Rinse, repeat. Adlon and Million make a solid final-girl(s) double act. Never doubt the effective power of an outta-nowhere throat-slitting, or a creative impalement, or how a placid, rural environment can suddenly turn ominous and horrifying after the sun goes down. Really, who doesn’t like a good table-turning fake-out or three?
You might almost forget that Sick takes place during the beginning of the pandemic, until the movie reveals its endgame — at which point you either book an emergency appointment with your ophthalmologist due to excessive eyerolling or go into a slow clap. Williamson & Co. remember the fear most folks felt when the virus seemed to be moving through the population at an eerily rapid rate, and how every outing made you wonder if you were taking your life in your hands. They also remember the rage that infected those who felt that our fellow citizens displayed a rather laissez-faire attitude toward public health guidelines. Whether the ideas they’re toying with here offer a booster shot of relevance to a modern slasher story is, frankly, debatable. What we can say is: congratulations on being both first out of the gate and an instant subgenre footnote.