In sickness and in health…
Sometimes, it seems as if every horror fan apart from myself has seen Showtime’s Masters of Horror series in its entirety. Now with two seasons of thirteen episodes each to its name, it seems like everyone has an opinion on each and every one of them. Until recently, I’d only seen Dario Argento’s two offerings, Jenifer in Season 1 and Pelts in Season 2. My phenomenal disappointment at their lacklustre quality played no small part in my lack of interest in seeking out the rest of the series: after all, if my favourite director couldn’t manage to bring anything to the table, what hope was there for the rest of ‘em?
Recently, however, I picked up the first two volumes of Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray release of Season 1, containing episodes by John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, William Malone, Argento, Lucky McKee and John Landis. Impressed by McKee’s theatrical debut, May, one of my favourite horror films of the last decade, I jumped straight to his tale, Sick Girl, not sure at all of what to expect.
What’s strange is that, although McKee only has two feature films under his belt (one of which hadn’t been released when Sick Girl aired, and which I’ve yet to see), it’s still clear from the outset that his “style” is all over the production in a way that it just wasn’t for Dario Argento with Jenifer. If you’ve seen May, you’ll immediately recognise this as the work of the same director. All of his obsessions are present: we’ve got quirky outcasts, we’ve got lesbians, we’ve got Angela Bettis (playing a quirky outcast lesbian - how’s that for value for money?), we’ve got gloomy old buildings, we’ve got a slow, building sense of dread, we’ve got Jaye Barnes Luckett’s off-kilter score, we’ve got a scene in which two lovers watch a movie that can only be described as the creation of a deranged mind… Essentially, Sick Girl is treading much of the same ground as May, but McKee has got this formula down pat, and I for one didn’t object to a second outing.
The plot focuses on Ida Teeter (Bettis), a throaty-voiced scientist whose speciality is bugs. So fond of her beloved insects is she that her apartment is filled with them, much to the disgust of her frosty landlady, Mrs. Beasley (Marcia Bennett), and, when an unusually large and vicious, and seemingly unknown, specimen is mysteriously delivered to her door, she can’t keep the excitement out of her voice. Things get going when Ida, egged on by her lab partner, Max (Jesse Hlubik), plucks up the courage to approach Misty Falls (Erin Brown), a shy, reclusive girl who spends each day drawing pixies in the foyer of Ida’s workplace, and ask her out. Quicker than Max can say “ladies in lust”, Ida and Misty are having hot, rambunctious sex on the sofa, and Misty is moving into the apartment. It’s all sweetness and fairycakes… until, that is, Ida’s new bug takes a liking to Misty and… well, you can probably guess what happens next.
Okay, not the most thrilling of plots, as I’m sure you’ll agree, but McKee handles it with applomb. Like May, it goes nowhere in a hurry, taking care to establish its characters and allow the audience to come to like them before the “horror” segment of this Masters of Horror episode gets going. And Ida and Misty are likeable. They’re both quirky and oddly charming, and McKee portrays them with affection rather than as grotesque parodies of social outcasts. Yes, they’re weird, but in an endearing and frequently amusing way.
Much of this is down to the performances of the two leads, with Angela Bettis, while not delivering to quite the same level as she did in May, handling the awkward and stone-faced Ida with considerable skill. Erin Brown, meanwhile, seems to be channeling Amber Benson, initially at least. Beyond the more obvious issue of her orientation, Misty is so similar to Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in terms of shyness, clothes, hairstyle and mannerisms that it’s a wonder 20th Century Fox haven’t sued for plagiarism. She’s also very good in the role, though, and handles her character’s slow transformation effectively. I was surprised, to put it mildly, to discover that she is actually a porn actress, better known to her fans as Misty Mundae.
Once the horror elements begin to fly, they do so with abundance. The climax is a deliciously twisted piece of filmmaking, with one of the most over the top but strangely convincing transformation I’ve seen in a while, all created with practical effects (no CGI muck here). I read a review which described this as the David Cronenberg film that David Cronenberg never made, and I can definitely see the similarities between this and the likes of Naked Lunch (and, presumably, The Fly, which I should be seeing for the first time soon), in its merging of humans and prosthetic insects. And hey, just in case this sounds like a bit of a downer, McKee even throws a happy ending at us out of left field, albeit one laced with a hefty dose of black humour.
One of my main criticisms of Jenifer and Pelts was that their scenarios were too thin and inconsequential to fill an hour’s running time. With Sick Girl, conversely, I felt exactly the opposite: I wanted the episode to last longer, and I suspect that, if it had, it would have avoided the third act seeming so rushed. It might also have allowed more depth to be given to the secondary characters, Max and Mrs. Beasley, who are merely one-note stereotypes (the sex-obsessed man and the “degenerate”-hating old woman). Still, for what it was, I enjoyed Sick Girl considerably more than I was expecting to. I’m not quite sure how McKee got to be labelled as a Master of Horror on the back of two films, but this episode confirmed my belief that he is a filmmaker worth watching out for.