The Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival is known for launching some of the to-be highest-profile genre films of the year. Sick, written by horror master Kevin Williamson and directed by action master John Hyams, fits that bill. Following two best friends who quarantine at a lake house during the COVID-19 pandemic, only to find themselves stalked by a masked assailant, this is a film that tells a familiar story with a few intriguing twists.
The title of the film is fascinating because of the many meanings that the word “sick” has. Is it “sick” as in “ill,” the slang for “cool,” or representing how twisted the film is? Perhaps it’s a little of all of them. This is what Williamson had to say about coming up with the film’s title.
“We didn’t know what to name the film, and ‘pandemic’ didn’t sound right. Anything related to ‘pandemic’ made it sound like it was a pandemic movie. And it’s a horror film, it’s a slasher film. It is a fun throwback with a horror film with a modern twist. That’s how we viewed it. And we didn’t know what to call it. So I showed it to one of my closest friends, Bryan Fuller, of Hannibal fame. And he watched it and said, ‘Oh, you should call it Sick.’ We asked why and he said, ‘Just call it Sick. One-word title.’ He’s a fan of one-word titles. He said, “Just call it Sick. You have Scream, you have Alone, you have Sick.’ We ran it by the studio, and they were like, ‘I don’t think so.’ And then they had to live with it and live with it, and then before you know it, we had Sick. And you’re right, it was just a fun title to play around with because of the many definitions of the word sick.” – Kevin Williamson
Horror and isolation go hand-in-hand, so it only makes sense that filmmakers would use the COVID-19 pandemic as the perfect setting for a horror movie. Even though some cinephiles have already grown weary of COVID-set films, Sick is very different from what they may be used to. Even though the film is set during COVID, it’s not taking advantage of the common trauma we all felt, but rather, providing a relief of sorts from it.
Also Read: Sick TIFF Review: A COVID-19 Take on Scream
“That was part of Kevin and Katleyn [Crabb]’s kind concept from the get go is to use COVID. To set up again, an iconic sort of isolation scenario: two people alone in a lake house. And then put it in this context where it’s in quarantine. That’s something we’ve been certainly talking about today and talk a lot about is that it’s essentially like a COVID period piece. It’s not really about COVID. It’s really about spring 2020, when there was a lot of uncertainty in the air and a lot of social anxiety. People were literally isolating themselves, and everyone headed to the hills. And what this concept takes advantage of is that you’re not very safe when you head to the hills. In this case, that’s where you’re vulnerable. So it just seemed like, on so many levels, a way of not just looking at this time, but we’re looking at human beings, our instincts, our primal fears. This really took advantage of all those and explored it in a lot of fun ways.” – John Hyams
Horror fans might recognize Williamson’s name as the scribe behind one of the most iconic films in horror history: Scream. You may also recognize some similarities between Sick and Scream, particularly in the opening sequence. The prolonged opening sequence even caused some fans to describe the film as “the COVID Scream.” For Williamson, the similarities were definitely purposeful.
“It was definitely meant to be. One of the things I loved about doing this movie is that I love all the movies of yesterday. I’m a big nostalgia fan. I’m nostalgic for all those old late ‘70s, early ‘80s horror films. And I think [John is] too. But I don’t want to see them again. I want to subvert them. I want to misdirect the scares, just sort of take whatever we’ve seen before and twist it. I think that’s what [John] does so well in the execution of this film. John, yes. So we were just trying to subvert the expectations of what you have seen in the genre and offer up something new in terms of execution. Also, the thing about Scream is, I love my extended opening scenes. That was the whole birth of the movie: why don’t we have a movie that was entirely the opening scene? And well, we couldn’t do that. So he gives us an opening scene, and then we have a few moments of introduction, and then we have a third act that’s 45 minutes long. And that’s to me, Halloween. The third act of Halloween is like Sidney Prescott running for her life. That’s the fun of it, we take that trope and have a brand new exercise.” – Williamson
One of the most exciting scenes of the film is set on the lake. Without going into too many spoilers, it features the killer and their prey having a brawl in the water, but unlike many water-bound horror scenes, the camera gets up close and personal with the action. It’s an impressively ambitious shot, and for Hyams, it was one of the hardest parts they had to shoot.
“It was challenging.” – Hyams
“You did a great job. I’ve been wanting to do that scene for a long time. I’ve actually placed it in other movies, and it got cut out. And I’ve always wanted to do that scene. It’s kind of like the scene in I Know What You Did Last Summer that got cut out. We put it in Scream 2. Sometimes you have a spare part that you fall in love with, and that was one. Now it’s been realized and I’m happy” – Williamson
“It was naturally going to be a challenging thing because you’re on water. We were still on a tight schedule and we had to consider every dollar we spent, but personally the way this big, long kind of chase ride was written, a big part of that was going on the lake and bringing the lake into the story. If you’re gonna have a house on the lake, it’s like introducing the gun in the first act, it’s got to go off. It was the real deal. We had water safety people, we had to kind of shoot it various ways and rig it up.” – Hyams
“Not to ruin the movie magic but there were other houses that we had to paint out so that she’s all alone.” – Williamson
“Our visual effects team did a good job because yeah, that is a more populous area that we presented. We did a lot of visual effects and just painted out houses, not only at night, but in the day. There’s a scene with the two young women sitting out on the lake talking to each other. There were people jet skiing on that lake when we filmed it, but we were able to manage to get rid of everybody.” – Hyams
Hyams is primarily known as a director of action films, having directed several films in the Universal Soldier franchise that are hailed for their action choreography. It was almost natural for him to transition into the horror genre, as there are several similarities between shooting fight scenes and kill scenes, and this was reflected in his approach to directing Sick.
“I personally try to approach them in a similar way. In the case of this, it was ‘Can we present a slasher scenario where the killer is not a supernatural being?’ We’re gonna let you know, from the get go, this is very much a human being, and a person who’s not going to necessarily have an easy time killing. People are going to fight back like hell, and he doesn’t walk slowly, and he doesn’t kind of appear in places that he wouldn’t be able to. I like the idea of having these interactions with the killer sometimes be knockdown, drag out fights. And I think a lot of that is really on the page. Especially, there’s a particular scene with Parker in the kitchen that, when I read that scene, I remember just getting really excited by everything that happens in that scene and how it plays out as part of a larger sequence. But when we got to that part, I felt myself really pulled in. So I think, in a sense, an action scene or a horror scene, or kill scene, to me, infusing them all with kind of a lot of messiness and randomness and even though they’re tightly choreographed, making them feel very random and messy and scrappy, I think that was that was the approach” – Hyams
“That’s what I love about it, because the action is very messy and real. And also, it takes a lot of choreography and a lot of planning and execution to make it that messy and scrappy, which is what I hope people understand too. [John] actually does that really, really well. It’s a thing that I’m sure you know, and I love it. Just to be honest, we didn’t have a lot of resources. There wasn’t a big budget for this, there wasn’t a lot of time. So the fact that [John] accomplished what he did, I hope people realize what it takes to accomplish that. I don’t think other directors could have done that, quite frankly.” – Williamson
The thing about Sick is that, while it is definitely very scary, it also manages to be quite fun and even somewhat funny. For Williamson, writing the film was a very particular balancing act, because it couldn’t be overly bleak or else the audience would grow disillusioned, but he wanted the film to take itself seriously. We think he pulled it off.
“This movie was meant to be a bit of a release valve for what was happening in the world today so that people could honestly just breathe, and maybe smile and laugh and find some sort of levity in the situation. But it was never meant to be in your face funny. There’s no mocking of what’s happening, it was meant to be very real, very scary, and very relatable. But if you’re going to do all those things, you have to have a little humor, because that’s life. We’ve had to laugh at ourselves a little bit through these trying times because you can’t cry 24/7, and that’s what we were doing. Sso we’re just trying to have a little levity and action. I always find humor in life. I always find humor in horror. I think it works really well. I think you need to take that breath every now and then so that you can ramp up with the next one.” – Williamson
“Yeah, I agree. And it is a spoiler, so I won’t give it away. But there’s sort of one clear moment where you’ve been in something that’s just dead serious up to this moment, and a character is introduced, utters a line. And she doesn’t say it in a humorous way. But I think it feels so outrageous at that moment. So to me, it is really funny. And as Kevin said, we have to be able to, especially just out of the context of what the movie is about, have those release valves where you can laugh in the middle of tension. That’s just hopefully just engaging the audience more, making them more connected to what’s happening.” – Hyams
After its debut in Toronto, Sick went on to play at Fantastic Fest in Austin and will next play at Beyond Fest in Los Angeles and the Chicago International Film Festival. The film is still searching for a distributor, although its intelligent, well-crafted thrills will ensure it finds a home for release in the very near future.