Sick Review: The Strangers For The Covid Era Is Actually Really Good, And Far Too Real [Fantastic Fest]

"Sick" is a well-made, well-executed, and smarty-written pandemic home invasion slasher that plays like "The Strangers" for the COVID-19 era. The film features great and smart characters that make choices you don't really see in the genre, with creative camera work that uses its one location in inventive ways.

Doing movies set during the pandemic is no easy task, particularly horror movies. For the most part, they tend either to be too shallow to properly explore their historical context, or they treat the pandemic as a distant joke rather than an ongoing crisis. Indeed, most pandemic movies end up feeling very gimmicky, but that is not the case with "Sick." Though it is far from the first pandemic horror movie, it manages to use the specific time period of April 2020 and the feeling of isolation and paranoia we all felt to place the audience in the mind of two young women who find themselves in a home invasion thriller, isolated and paranoid. Granted, there is a third act reveal that either makes or breaks the movie with how it handles the pandemic, but even that is a good conversation starter.

Remember April of 2020?

We start with a rather dark and horrific scene set in April 2020, a time when most of the country and the world was sheltering in place. Director John Hyams manages to hit the right balance between humor and horror, with jokes about early pandemic protocols and our weird beliefs — like scrubbing down groceries with disinfectant, petty arguments about bacteria's ability to travel more than six feet outdoors, the sight of empty toilet paper shelves, or the internet's weird and horny obsession with CNN anchors and CDC authorities (take a shot any time Anderson Cooper mentions Dr. Fauci! remember that?) — but there is also plenty of grim and horrific reminders of the gravity of the situation, from constant mentions of immunocompromised loved ones to the rising toll of infected and dead.

The movie stars Gideon Aldon ("Blockers") and Bethlehem ("Flatbush Misdemeanors") as Parker and Miri, two best friends who decide to shelter in place together in a remote cabin owned by Parker's dad. The two have varying degrees of adherence to COVID precautions, with Miri refusing to enter Parker's car if she isn't wearing a mask, because she is afraid of compromising her dad, while Parker was recently caught posting Instagram photos of herself kissing strangers at end-of-the-world parties.

An effective thriller

Of course, things go south once strangers arrive at the cabin wielding serrated knives and with killer intent. Hyams shoots "Sick" with the same manic energy and knack for creative camerawork he gave "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning," while fully using negative space for full nightmare-inducing effect. Most of the scares are telegraphed a mile away, but it is still a delight to see them executed so well, with shots of the killer walking silently in the distance before disappearing, or doors slowly opening causing most of the jump scares. And that is the film's biggest achievement, how well executed it is. 

"Sick" finds ways to make the old feel new, while the script, written by Katelyn Crabb from a story by Williamson, feels like a modern reaction to "Scream." This is a movie Randy Meeks would be proud to watch, one where the characters zig whenever they would normally zag in a lesser horror movie, where they react smartly to their situation and find ways to thrive, like distracting the killer by throwing a rock far away so they don't murder your best friend but you also don't give away your position.

Then there's the COVID of it all, which starts mostly as background that grounds the movie in reality but ends up being an essential part of the plot. "Sick" works well as a standalone thriller before you bring in the real-world connection, but once it becomes apparent that the movie is trying to say something, the tone changes from a movie set during the pandemic to being a full-on pandemic movie. Your mileage may vary on whether this is a good thing, but you can't blame "Sick" for at least trying to start a conversation.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10