It’s been strange to discover how many filmmakers have willfully ignored the fact that, for a couple of very recent years, the planet Earth was completely consumed by a deadly pandemic that killed millions of people, tanked our economies, transformed social interactions, and probably changed life as we know it forever. Most movies and TV shows are happy to pretend those years never happened, and have never interrupted the flow of their characters’ lives. But horror filmmakers — who work fast, work cheap, and have carte blanche to confront our most uncomfortable anxieties — are the exception.
The “Lockdown Wave” of filmmaking, with productions that took place in the midst of the pandemic or its immediate aftermath, has already yielded fascinating results. Films like “Host” nimbly explored themes of shared cultural responsibility, while Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s “Something in the Dirt” tackled broader existential dilemmas. It seems only fitting that Kevin Williamson, who previously brought the slasher genre kicking and screaming into turn of the century modernity, would have something to say about the pandemic as well, and give us something new to “Scream” about.
So it’s unfortunate that “Sick,” co-written by Katelyn Crabb and Williamson and directed by John Hyams (“Alone”), does so very little with the fusion of pandemic panic and old-fashioned knife murderer mania. Although the film is set during the early days of lockdown and it eventually makes a clunky point about it, the vast majority of “Sick” could have taken place at any time, in any context. And it’s not quite exciting or scary enough as a conventional genre picture to get away with that.
“Sick” opens at a grocery store on April 3, 2020, where a young man gets stalked through the aisles but, wouldn’t you know it, everyone’s wearing masks so nobody’s recognizable. The uneasy surroundings and the surreality of a completely masked populace are a great backdrop for scares, but the sequence is ultimately undone by ho-hum texting taunts — echoes of the “Scream” caller, without the personality or subversion — as well as an ensuing death scene that’s suspenseful but fails to capitalize on the frightening possibilities unleashed by COVID.
At this point we meet our two heroes, Parker (Gideon Adlon, “The Craft: Legacy”) and Miri (Bethlehem Million, “Flatbush Misdemeanors”), who are fleeing their college campus for the safety and isolation of Parker’s family cabin. But it’s more like a mansion, really, with multiple floors, gigantic layouts, and deer heads with spiky antlers on the wall. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the deer heads whisper, “My spikes will be important later… later… later…”
Parker cares more about her social life than following recommended safety precautions. She’s got a dude on the hook named DJ (Dylan Sprayberry), who joins the festivities uninvited, and at least one other dude she’s on makeout terms with, which she films and shares on social media. Miri ostensibly cares about COVID protocols, masking and social distancing, but in spite of her reservations she also repeatedly drops her guard and endangers herself and others when it’s convenient or fun. Kids these days, right?
Sure enough, the murderer arrives, invades the house, and begins a reign of terror. But with such a small cast the idea of subverting the “masked killer” conceit within a world of ubiquitous masks falls apart completely, and with so few murder victims on the chopping block, “Sick” rapidly becomes a straightforward chase thriller, with Parker and Miri racing away from a maniac who just keeps coming, Pepé Le Pew style, undeterred.
What “Sick” lacks in cleverness it also lacks in exciting set pieces. A couple of creepy moments — on a raft in a lake in particular, along with a great gag at the front door — do little to disguise how direct and unimaginative most of John Hyams’ film is. It’s shot eerily enough by Yaron Levy (who previously filmed the fantastic cult series “Blood Drive”) but the actual events that transpire in front of Levy’s camera are relatively unremarkable.
The beauty of the slasher genre is that the genre’s skeleton is so incredibly sturdy, all a filmmaker really has to do is dress it up. Change the masks, change the settings, change the motives, and suddenly you’ve got a film that satisfies slasher fans while still seeming just different enough to give your own creation its distinct personality.
“Sick” settles for only one major cosmetic alteration, since the mask element kinda fizzles, and while that part makes logical sense and is thematically apropos, by itself it does little to make the movie stand out. This is a rote morality play with familiar set pieces and decent performances — performances which could have been great if the film had given the characters more, you know, character.
Hyams’ film doesn’t make the most of its concept but, although it’s not a particularly interesting slasher, it is an efficient one. Fans of the genre will no doubt have a little fun with it. The fun just isn’t infectious.
“Sick” premieres exclusively on Peacock on Jan. 13.