February 5, 2023

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‘Sick’ review: Kevin Williamson rewrites the rules of slasher survival

3 min read

If covid doesn’t kill you, the tall guy with the hunting knife probably will. The hook of John Hyams’ “Sick” is the clever work of an ongoing health scare, and especially the way college-aged kids deal with CDC restrictions — often ignoring them — adding some disposable undergrad to the epidemic’s otherwise tragic body size. That’s what’s so compelling about this quick-turnaround collaboration from Kevin Williamson and “Scream” co-writer Caitlin Crabb, streaming now on Peacock: You’re never sure whether you should root for its reckless young coeds or count. Should teach them a lesson in a slasher.

Playing on our lingering paranoia, “Sick” opens with a scene that recalls the early, uncertain days of the pandemic. A college kid named Tyler (Joel Courtney) wanders into an apocalyptic-looking grocery store whose shelves are emptied of teepees and other essentials. She’s wearing a mask and doing her best to maintain social distancing when texts from an unknown number start popping up on her phone, asking if she’s game to hang out. Tyler seems interested. Don’t think there is a nationwide quarantine. As the text grows more persistent, Tyler’s discomfort begins to grow. When she returns to her dorm room, she’s completely passed out—with good reason. No amount of PPE can protect her from the blade-wielding psycho that follows her home.

It’s an impressively staged opening that demonstrates right out of the gate that Haims can handle the codes of the slasher genre. (Blumhouse arrived after the film was finished.) Throughout the scene, the camera hovers very close to Tyler, playing tricks where he sees things he can’t see—like opening a closet door to reveal a tall, menacing figure in the background—his perspective. Once the audience learns that the killer is probably after her before taking over. DP Yaron Levy, who worked on both “Scream: The TV Series” and Hyams’ last “Universal Soldier” movie, lenses this and subsequent sequences in a long, fluid way that brings us uncomfortably close to the action: We’re not only within stabbing distance, but Close enough to catch covid.

Cut to besties Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Bethlehem Milton) break the rules and head to a vacation home where they plan to wait out the worst of the pandemic together. Fouchy smoochy. Re:masking, depending on your own position, Parker’s casual, too-cool-for-quarantine attitude might trigger some judgment — or detection. Instead of testing, he assumes that the lack of symptoms and full-strength sense of smell means he’s negative, potentially putting those around him at risk. And if such warnings don’t matter to him, then should we care if a real threat appears in a ridiculously aristocratic resort home? He is already getting the text. Meanwhile, oversharing on social media makes it easy for any stalker to find her. Kinda makes you feel sorry for Miri, who is endangered by association.

The rest plays like a well-oiled and largely effective “Scream” knockoff, which is basically what it is, minus the meta-humor and, frankly, a cast to care about. Williamson and Crabb jettisoned the sense of old-school judicial sex negativity, where the “slut” is diminished while introducing a different kind of morality: here, one’s conformity during an epidemic dictates your ultimate chance of survival. It’s best to let the audience discover the Reaper’s motives in context; Suffice it to say that “Sick” not only accounts for our still-evolving Covid-era norms, but also serves as an amusing time capsule for the collective fear that has consumed us over the last three years.

Indie-movie darling Jane Addams (“Hacks”) appears late in the film as a woman who drives Parker while he panics in the woods. The poor girl is clearly terrified, being chased by a madman responsible for at least three murders, and yet this Karen-esque sticker refuses to let Parker into her car until he agrees to put on a mask. That scene should leave a lasting impression long after every other detail of the movie has faded from memory, as Parker’s ambivalence toward the guidelines intended to save his life and others comes back to haunt him.

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