By RYAN COLEMAN
Starring Gideon Adlon, Bethlehem Million and Jane Adams
Directed by John Hyams
Written by Katelyn Crabb
Original Story by Kevin Williamson
Miramax, Outerbanks Entertainment
If you mistakenly assumed that Kevin Williamson had something to do with the recent Scream “requel” – stylized 5cream, pronounced “five cream” – you’re forgiven. With Wes Craven gone, Williamson is now the acting face of the franchise, and though he did executive produce 5cream, we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Williamson wrote Screams 1 through 4, so he’s going to get a major credit wherever his characters are used, and he’ll always be associated with them.
Still, for those of us unlucky to have had our eyes open during 5cream’s agonizing 114 minutes, it was hard not to come away feeling a bit disappointed in Williamson for allowing his characters and their universe to be so denigrated, chopped up and ironized to the point of pulverization. I am happy to report that with SICK, Williamson’s first creative credit on a film since 2011’s Scream 4, he’s fully redeemed himself – and more. Williamson, co-writer Katelyn Crabb, director John Hyams and the principal cast, especially the film’s three leading women, Gideon Adlon, Bethlehem Million and the legendary Jane Adams, have delivered the best slasher in recent memory.
The film starts with an impressive cold open that recalls Scream insofar as it’s now the standard way to start a slasher: an attractive young person with an as-yet unexplained relationship with the main characters gets picked off by a masked killer in a particularly brutal way. It’s the filmmakers’ way of saying, “Look what I can do, please stick around, I’m going to do even more!” Of course, lots of slashers (and horror films in general) don’t live up to the excellent promise of their cold opens, but SICK’s opening salvo, with its bone-crushingly realistic violence, kinetic camera work that sinews in and around the action with an almost inhuman speed and reactivity, its cathartic COVID humor, and refreshing lack of subtext, meta-narrative or underlying commentary, really does set the viewer up for the excellent film to come. Each of the promises implicitly made in these moments is ultimately paid off in full – and with verve.
In this opening scene, a young man receives strange texts and pictures of himself standing in line at the grocery store from an unknown number (“What’s your favorite scary movie?”). He does everything right; He blocks the number, checks around his car before he enters, locks the door once inside and drives straight home, of course, not before sanitizing his hands. “Everything right” is never good enough for the first face onscreen in most scary movies, however, and at his college apartment, he’s chased around by an aggressive, knife-wielding intruder. Crucially though, it’s just a guy in a ski mask not a scary movie ghoul like Ghostface or Jason Voorhees.
We then meet our principal players, best friends Parker (Gideon Adlon, daughter of Pamela) and Miri (Bethlehem Million). It’s 2020, the dawn of the COVID era. Everyone’s policing mask use, wiping down their groceries and trying to figure out how to get as far out of civilization as possible. Parker’s family is rich, so the two decide to decamp to her expansive summer home that’s designed in the style of a log cabin and located in the middle of the woods. After a few days, Parker’s doofus on-again-off-again boyfriend, DJ (Dylan Sprayberry) shows up to confront her about a video circulating of her making out with another guy (a most relevant detail that must not be pursued for fear of entering spoiler territory). Parker starts getting the same strange texts and blocks the number, but as before, it does no good. The masked killer shows up and slips into the house when a careless DJ goes out for a smoke and leaves the front door open.
SICK is decent enough up to this point, but once the cat and mouse game begins, followed by the revelation of the killers and their motives, culminating in the final moments of shocking catharsis, SICK becomes exquisite. Catharsis is the operative word in nailing down just what pushes it over the line from a decent flick that once upon a time you’d pick up from a video store with no prior knowledge, throw it on with some friends and have a nice but unmemorable night (now this genre has probably been replaced by the Shudder Original), to a stellar piece of work that will be discussed and debated for years to come. The action is built around an almost untenable number of tension ratchet-ups (They’ve almost got her!) and releases (Oh, she got them!). That’s nothing new for horror, especially for a slasher whose rhythms frequently and unconsciously mimic the syncopations of sex. SICK stands apart by the sheer volume of these rises and falls, the bracing and relaxing, dread followed by thrilling relief that somehow (though always believably) two injured and exhausted girls can outwit and outlast a macho killing machine.
SICK’s pacing also helps. The triple threat of Williamson and Crabb’s tight script is focused primarily on the action (though a social commentary does crop up in a series of third-act revelations), Hyams’ elastic direction and especially editor Andrew Drazek’s propulsive cuts launch the film at a high enough velocity to transcend the fatigue that sometimes sets in after so much killing, dying, running, screaming and fighting back. Adlon and Million get seriously hurt and seriously wound their attackers many, many times; They fall off roofs, get their legs broken, get stabbed, shot at, shoot back and use electric turkey cutters, chairs, knives and even disinfecting spray to fight back.
We should cross our fingers that SICK gets the wide release it deserves. The film plays incredibly with an enthusiastic audience, and its X-factor, the phenomenal and versatile Jane Adams, deserves to have the shocking revelation of her character play before as many fresh eyes as possible.