Written by: Sean Hood and Lucky McKee
Directed by: Lucky McKee
Starring: Angela Bettis, Misty Mundae and Jesse Hlubik
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Babes or bugs. You can't have both. "
Lucky McKee wasn’t the first choice to helm Sick Girl; instead, he stepped in for one of the more infamous masters of horror in Roger Corman, who would have been tackling some familiar territory in this creepy, crawly bug-infested tale. Though McKee only had a couple of directorial credits to his name at the time, one of them was a real doozy in May, the weird little film that also introduced the horror world to his muse, Angela Bettis, whose performance as that film’s title character is already legendary. In this respect McKee’s replacement of Corman was a boon since he was able to bring Bettis along to give another fantastically awkward and affecting performance that ranks among the best this series has seen.
Bettis is Ida Teeter, an entomologist who loves her work just a little too much and often brings it home with her, which means her apartment is swarming with insects. This makes it difficult for Ida to keep a girlfriend--in fact, when we meet her, she’s just being broken up with via a message on her machine, and she’s sent crying into her pillow-case that’s adorned with cracked eggs (which says just about everything you need to know about her right there). At any rate, two big events befall her life right around the same time: first, she meets a sweet girl named Misty (Erin Brown, aka Misty Mundae), then she receives a strange package with an impossibly exotic insect. As her relationship blossoms, this new creature threatens to tear her life apart when it gets loose.
That’s definitely the setup for a creature run amok tale, and maybe that’s the direction Sick Girl might have taken under Corman. You can certainly see one of his old creature features re-imagined in the confines of this apartment building, and there’s hints of that here, even (a dog goes missing, some of Ida’s other pets get terrorized by the beast, etc.). However, McKee largely keeps it operating in the background and instead turns Sick Girl into something we don’t see very much in the horror genre: a completely charming love story that stays sweet no matter how sick this story gets--and it does go to some pretty disgusting places.
Bettis and Brown make for an adorably offbeat couple, with the former obviously leading the charge. Affecting multiple inflections and vocal patterns, Bettis’s Ida is weirder than weird; in fact, she seems to make a purpose of out-weirding everything and everyone. There are moments when she inflects that same sort of spazzy, twitchy tone that Stephen Geoffreys was memorable for about twenty years ago. It’d come off as a little off-putting or forced if Bettis didn’t seem so damn natural and endearing because of it (rather than despite it). She’s hyper-quirky and kooky, but she’s easily relatable due to her seemingly terminal awkwardness. Brown is a good match, maybe even unexpectedly so since she’s primarily known as a softcore porn actress; she’s similarly shy and undeniably cute, so she and Bettis are like two peas in a pod and perfectly insulated in their own little bizarre world. If ever there were two people that were made for each other, it’s this two.
Examining this as some kind of GLBT parable is tempting, and this angle is actually the result of McKee and screenwriter Sean Hood re-jigging the story to account for Bettis taking the lead role (Ida was originally conceived as a man). That’s mostly a valid approach, though Sick Girl is pretty restrained about it, save for the judgmental old bag who also serves as Ida’s landlord (Marcia Bennett). She fears how Ida and Misty’s open lesbianism will affect her own granddaughter, who looks up to Ida so much that she’s constantly wearing a ladybug outfit. Bennett provides a good foil, and her archaic homophobia helps to further endear us to the two leads.
Homophobia isn’t the only thing they contend with, as there’s still a matter of the giant insect tramping about Ida’s apartment. Even though a bulk of the film hovers around the central relationship, McKee doesn’t just suddenly remember the bug and stuff it back in; no, it’s actually always there, and McKee goes very Cronenberg with the material, and Nicotero and Berger’s top-notch effects realize some horrific bodily mutilations. Any atonal mish-mash is cleverly avoided, however, as McKee’s odd, comedic touch keeps this a sweet little romance that just happens to be complicated by a malicious parasite.
Sick Girl feels like the more affirming B-side to May; their similarities are rather obvious, but this take on the material is a bit more light and frothy. McKee has made four smart, interesting films centered around women, and they’ve all perceptively captured whatever theme is driving their story, be it loneliness, rebellion, or submissiveness. This film is perhaps the odd one out in terms of tone, but it’s no less memorable and certainly ranks in the upper echelon of Masters of Horror episodes. Anchor Bay again provides a nice DVD with a strong presentation and an assortment of extras. The centerpiece here is a commentary track with Mckee, Bettis, Hlubik, and composer Jaye Barnes Luckett, and it’s surrounded by all of the usual behind-the-scenes looks, interviews, and other promo material. Though his resume isn’t extensive right now, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed everything McKee has directed so far, and Sick Girl is quite possibly his second best film after May. Buy it!
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