“Babes or bugs. You can’t have both.”
Can director Lucky McKee be considered a “Master of Horror,” when he hasn’t made as many films as heavy hitters John Carpenter or Dario Argento? When his one significant contribution to the genre is May, the answer is “yes, absolutely.” May caught the indie and horror worlds by surprise upon its release, thanks to its gory scares, quirky humor, and genuine character development. But even though May impressed almost everyone who saw it, a Hollywood career has, to date, eluded McKee. His debut film, a splatter-fest called All Cheerleaders Die has yet to see any sort of DVD release, and his first studio film, The Woods, completed post production two years ago and as of this writing is still sitting on a studio shelf, unseen by audience eyes. McKee moved away from L.A., and, apparently, from filmmaking, only to be contacted by Mick Garris (Riding the Bullet) to join the Masters of Horror anthology series. For his entry, McKee reunited with his May star Angela Bettis, pairing her with Erin Brown—who is better known to Showtime viewers as the perpetually nude almost-actress Misty Mundae (Flesh for Olivia). The end result of all this is Sick Girl, a story of romance and icky bugs.
Ida Teeter (Bettis) is a lonely entomologist. Her apartment houses her pets, a wide variety of creepy crawlies in cages. Because of these pets, Ida instantly turns off any dates she brings home. After one failed relationship after another, Ida catches the eye of Misty Falls (Brown/Mundae), a free-spirited artist who hangs around the museum where Ida works. They’re both, you know, into girls, and they’re very into each other. After Misty admits a similar interest in insects, their hesitant flirting turns into heated lovemaking. The two eventually move in together and enjoy the fruits of their romance. Unfortunately, there’s a third party involved. A huge, unidentifiable bug arrives on Ida’s doorstep, in a package from Brazil. It gets loose in the apartment, and takes a unique interest in one of the girls.
Even for genre fans who love to categorize and subcategorize their favorite films, McKee’s style is still hard to describe. And this style is everywhere in Sick Girl. It’s a relationship drama, a romantic comedy, and a slime-soaked thriller all at once. McKee’s work is also comparable to that of Wes Anderson or—do I dare say it?—Stanley Kubrick, in that he has a meticulous, almost obsessive, attention to detail. Notice how he uses a series of edits to give the illusion that characters are physically moving closer together or farther apart, depending on the scene. Or see how certain shots from the beginning of the film are later “rhymed” with similar shots at the end. It takes a vital combination of wild creativity and careful planning to pull off cool tricks like this, and McKee does it all without losing focus on the characters and the plot.
You like symbolism? Sure you do. One of the earliest looks we get of Ida is when she’s face down on a pillow in her bedroom, crying. This pillow is of particular interest. It’s an oversized blue monstrosity that the main characters—and I’m talking all the main characters—turn to when they’re feeling down or helpless. The apartment represents the “nest” for Ida and Misty, and this pillow is the heart of that nest. It’s present whenever they feel vulnerable. But look closely. There’s a little pattern on the pillow—small drawings of a cracked egg. This seems to say that the ladies’ perfect little sanctuary they’ve made for themselves isn’t as perfect as they think. It’s broken or cracked somehow, in a way they don’t notice. But we the viewers are reminded of it every time we see that pillow. So although the characters start to settle into some domestic bliss, we at home are well aware that not all is well, and that some serious gloom and doom lurks ahead.
Stuck playing an intellectual scientist type, Bettis puts her own spin on the stock “girl nerd” character. The part was originally scripted as a male character, so Bettis adopts some masculine mannerisms, speaking in a gruff, formal tone, and walking in a stiff, rigid way. It’s only at home and in private that she lets her guard down and reveals her girlishness. As Ida tentatively enters into a relationship with Misty, Bettis is excellent at showing Ida’s nervousness and apprehension without overdoing it. As a result, it’s easy to feel concern for her character, and to cheer her on during those fleeting moments when it seems she’s found some real happiness.
Perhaps thinking that this was her chance at mainstream stardom, Brown dropped her famous (infamous?) moniker for this one, but not her willingness to disrobe without hesitation. Still, the script calls for a lot out of her, and for the most part she delivers. The metaphor here is one of how the person you love seems to change into a totally different person once he or she moves in with you. To bring this metaphor to life, Brown starts out as the shy artist-type, so fearful of rejection that she talks overly fast while hiding behind her own long hair. Later, though, once she’s been properly insect-influenced, she gets to revel in the character’s dark side, letting loose with big screaming freak-outs and long streams of profanities. Fortunately, this transformation is just gradual enough that it never feels like an inconsistency.
There’s a lot more to praise about Sick Girl: great special effects by the folks at KNB EFX, a toe-tapping score filled with some old-timey retro tunes, Jesse Hlubik (Drake and Josh Go Hollywood) and Marcia Bennett (Godsend) in their supporting roles, a little yapping dog that gets what’s coming to it, and on and on. It’s not entirely perfect, though. The final scene will have many viewers scratching their heads, wondering exactly how this ending is possible, given everything that happened before it.
Another plus for this DVD is the audio. The 5.1 sound is a rich, immersive experience, and should make for a great “show off” disc in any collection. During the few “bug’s eye view” shots, the accompanying sound fills the room with chaotic, disorienting audio, catching viewers’ attentions immediately. The music sounds just as good, really springing to life at the appropriate moments. Similarly, the picture quality is pristine, with rich colors, and deep, solid blacks.
There is currently no Masters of Horror season one box set (although that might change in the future), but until then, Anchor Bay has done right by giving each episode truckloads of bonus features. McKee joins Bettis, Hlubik, and composer Jaye Barnes Luckett for a commentary track that is both funny and informative. Two featurettes, “Blood, Bugs, and Romance” and “Working with a Master” go over McKee’s career to date and the making of Sick Girl. Here, we get to see some blood-drenched footage from All Cheerleaders Die, anecdotes from the May and Sick Girl sets, and everyone’s frustration about the studio’s ongoing reluctance to release The Woods. The on set interviews with Bettis and Brown focus solely on the production itself. Bettis shares her thoughts about her character, while Brown spends most of the interview talking about the special effects and prosthetic makeup. Anyone interested in Brown’s history in the world of cheesy softcore skin flicks won’t find it here. The next interview is with Brad MacDonald, professional Hollywood “bug wrangler.” If you don’t like insects, and you dread the thought of their long, hairy legs slowly walking across your naked thigh, then you might want to skip this interview, in which MacDonald shows off all kinds of multi-legged monstrosities sure to make your skin crawl. There’s also a “Behind the Scenes” featurette repeating a lot of information from above, a still gallery, a text bio of McKee, and the screenplay and some screen savers on DVD-ROM.
Here’s hoping Lucky McKee will continue somehow making films in the future. He’s just too talented not to. Sick Girl doesn’t quite reach the same heights as May, but it’s worth checking out nonetheless.