Did Scream ever leave the pop-culture bloodstream? Two decades ago, its influence seemed oddly temporary; we got only a few short years of revivalist teen slashers before the genre cycled back around to supernatural scares. Since then, however, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s 1996 meta homage has kept creeping back into the zeitgeist, like that masked killer that just won’t die. Beyond the periodic continuations (and MTV adaptation), the ghost of Ghostface rears its head any time a horror movie gets a little self-referential or arranges a whodunit of potential hack-and-slashers. This past year or so has given us an official legacy sequel, plus modern offspring like Bodies Bodies Bodies, Werewolves Within, and Netflix’s Gen Z-courting Fear Street trilogy.
Sick, a quippy, zippy new slasher that premiered this week as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness slate, seems especially indebted to the blueprint of that post-modern horror-comedy-mystery classic. There’s a very good reason for that: Williamson himself co-wrote the screenplay with Katelyn Crabb. You can see his fingerprints on the material right from the jump, as a college student is stalked from a supermarket back to his dorm, and then fights a losing battle for his life against the mysterious black-clad assailant — a sequence that recalls the cold-open bloodbaths with which most of the Scream movies commence, minus much in the way of tongue-in-cheek movie trivia.
Though you could definitely call Sick a spiritual successor to Williamson’s past franchise-launching sensation, it isn’t much interested in the film-addled brains of the video store generation, or even the modern equivalent of the same. The satirical target this time is (sigh) the age of COVID, as experienced by a pair of coeds (Gideon Adlon and Beth Million) who head for a swanky, secluded family lodge to isolate together in the spring 2020, only to find their lockdown mellow harshed by the arrival of a stabby interloper. Williamson hasn’t lost his talent for writing spiky, antagonistic teen banter, but his commentary on pandemic life — and specifically the moral imperatives of our new normal — is irksomely muddled. By the end, Sick flirts, maybe jokingly, maybe just accidentally, with concluding that mask scolds are the true monsters of our moment.
Thankfully, such heavy-handed topicality is easily overlooked in a movie this lean and mean. Inverting Scream’s ratio of comic blather to suspense, Sick is first and foremost an exercise in expertly orchestrated home-invasion thrills. The buried lede here is that the movie’s been directed by John Hyams, the direct to-video action pro who made a couple of hyperviolent Universal Soldier sequels and also the nifty kidnapping/survival thriller Alone. Hyams plays diabolically with background space, and stages the close-quarters evasions with the full-contact, stunt-heavy physicality that has become his trademark. He turns the whole middle stretch of Sick into a brutally sustained cat-and-mouse game — a consolation prize for the general lack of such fun in January’s Scream.
It was the collaborative collision of Williamson’s witty pastiche and Craven’s fear-inducing chops that made the franchise-launching original such a milestone of the genre. Sick benefits from the same, with Craven’s big black boots filled by another exploitation-movie talent with a slightly different skill set. If the Scream series must continue (and it surely will, so long as the green keeps flowing), can the reins be put in Hyams’s right red hand? This off-brand spiritual successor confirms he’s got the killer instinct (and eye) for the job.
Ti West could clearly handle himself, too. His X, released in March, was a stylishly mounted slasher, though it proved more indebted to the farmhouse mayhem of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than the small-town killing and accusing of Scream. I mostly enjoyed that ’70s-set meditation on the kinship between pulp and smut, but I didn’t think it cried out much for an encore. Pearl, which also played Midnight Madness this week (and hits theaters tomorrow), finds West prequelizing his A24 potboiler, with a story that rewinds back to the 1910s youth of X’s deranged geriatric killer (played once more by Mia Goth, who notably also played the Final Girl in that film — a gift to college thesis writers looking for a fresh angle on Carol Clover’s area of study).
Goth, who also cowrote the screenplay, throws herself into the role of a desperately lonely, horny farmgirl losing her mind while her husband is away at war. Her stylized performance is about all that props up the film, beyond the general novelty of a slasher movie set in the early years of the 20th century. West throws ironic throwback quotation marks on the story, applying font choices, sweeping music cues, and a vaguely Technicolor-inspired palette that evoke Golden Age pastoral melodramas in a general, imprecise sense. There’s just really no suspense about where the film is going; even those who missed X will quickly ballpark the trajectory of Pearl’s plummet into murder and madness. Did West’s flavorfully derivative trip to the Leatherface boonies really need to be a franchise? Regardless, an ’80s-set trilogy capper is on the way.
Setting Pearl in 1918 allows West to also (big sigh again) echo our present moment, with lots of references to a dangerous pandemic sweeping the country. What’s a guy got to do to escape the burden of today? Fellow midnight selection V/H/S/99 thankfully takes no stabs at topicality. As its title suggests, and the dialogue sometimes clumsily underscores, the film nominally takes place on the cusp of the new millennium, taking the form of a VHS cassette that’s been taped over multiple times with home movies of horror. No talk of quarantine here! Just lots of obvious references to Blockbuster, Punk’d, and Y2K.
Look, the V/H/S series has always been of highly variable quality, going back to the now decade-old horror anthology that launched it. Neither the best or worst of the crop, part five offers a general flatline of agreeable, low-rent thrills. Despite the focus on a particular outdated technology, the thrust of these movies is closer to the E.C. Comics model of fearsome comeuppance, here delivered by undead punk rockers, undead sorority pledges, vengeful parents, a bombshell siren, and the inhabitants of hell itself. Of this particular crop, I most enjoyed the pledge-prank-gone-wrong chiller from Johannes Roberts, who — speaking of slashers — made the criminally underrated sequel to The Strangers, and here has fun with the claustrophobia of a coffin. Meanwhile, rapper Flying Lotus delivers the nuttiest installment, about a Double Dare-like kids obstacle course with very lax safety precautions. It’s pure Adult Swim nightmare absurdity.
Curiously, none of the segments even attempt to evoke the ultimate found-footage horror movie, released the very year V/H/S/99 is set. Like Scream, The Blair Witch Project has deeply ingrained itself in the genetic makeup of modern horror, without inspiring anything quite on its level. You can see some bastard offspring of it almost every year at Midnight Madness.
Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues all week. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.