The traumatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing aftermath have been making their way into horror cinema for a while now. In 2020 writer/director Rob Savage surprised and delighted us all with the Zoom-based haunted found footage film HOST, only to enrage with the controversial DASHCAM a year later. Both films dealt with the global pandemic in the moment, offering direct responses to the disasters of the world around us in real-time.
Now, in a world that’s pretending everything’s back to normal again, we’re beginning to see depictions of the outbreak with a little bit of distance behind us. SICK, written by Kevin Williamson (SCREAM) and directed by John Hyams (ALONE), thrusts us back into the harsh and isolating period when stay-at-home orders were in place, and many of us used Clorox wipes to disinfect our groceries. Within the opening scene alone, we are quickly reminded of details of quarantine we may have forgotten or chosen to not remember, such as the anxieties of grocery shopping or insisting to strangers that they should be wearing a mask. The movie uses this global experience to draw its audience in—we immediately relate to this world they’re building, and because it’s so recent (yet somehow seems so far away), we can’t look away. Throughout his life, Wes Craven remarked again and again that people go to horror movies not to be scared but for catharsis. In the case of this movie, I’d say there’s a fair amount of all of the above.
The film is exactly what we want from a Kevin Williamson screenplay. Here we are, witness to expertly-crafted and fast-paced chase scenes involving big, scary knives and a home invader wearing a mask—a clever nod to the masked killer trope. We have heroes who make (mostly) smart and quick choices in the moment and who we feel able and excited to root for. Acting is strong. Editing is terrific. The use of lighting and darkness is primo, and excellent cinematography allows for events happening simultaneously in the background and foreground to induce anxiety and fear upon the viewer.
Yet somehow, among all these strong accolades, the film finds itself muddled in its final act. The shift in the film’s direction didn’t completely ruin it for me, yet without spoiling anything; it left me wondering, “What does this movie have to say about the pandemic and people’s response to it?” If DASHCAM left audiences enraged at its lead character and its tasteless handling of the COVID crisis, how is SICK supposed to make me feel? Maybe nothing. However, it feels nearly impossible to make a movie about COVID and not have any perspective.
As a whole, the movie is a brutal, fast-paced, 83-minute thriller that delivers more than what it promises yet leaves us with nothing quite as iconic as chase-and-stab horror movies of the past.
SICK is available to stream on PEACOCK.