Of all the voices in horror that have sprung up in the 2000s, Edward “Lucky” McKee is probably my favorite. His films are so uniquely his own in the way that they combine strong character work, dreamlike visuals, dark humor, pop music, and a specific attention to female protagonists and relationships; it’s an alchemy that’s hard to pinpoint, but which has a direct line to my brain and affects me in the way no one else’s work does. Both May and The Woman are, in my opinion, two of the best horror movies of the last 20 years and films no one else could have made. The same can be said of “Sick Girl,” his entry for Season 1 of Masters of Horror. While he’s the greenest of all the Masters thus far, his episode is also the purest extension of an authorial voice in the whole series. This doesn’t just contain echoes or elements of his other work. This is a Lucky McKee movie in every single way and cannot be mistaken for anything else.
Season 1, Episode 10: “Sick Girl”
Director: Lucky McKee
Original Air Date: January 13th, 2006
Shy, awkward entomologist Ida (Angela Bettis, the De Niro to Lucky McKee’s Scorsese) is frustrated and lonely, full of love to give but unable to find a woman to whom she can give it. Turns out women haven’t exactly been turned on by someone obsessed with bugs. The same day she is sent a strange package containing an unidentifiable beetle-like insect, Ida finally introduces herself to Misty (Erin Brown, a star of soft-core films who often goes by the name Misty Mundae), an equally shy artist who hangs out and sketches in the lobby of Ida’s office building. They plan a date and immediately hit it off, but Misty is bit by the mystery bug and begins behaving very, very strangely.
Of all the episodes of Masters of Horror I’ve revisited so far, I can imagine “Sick Girl” as being the most polarizing. There have been others that viewers may find hit or miss, but most of that comes down to the story that’s being told. In the case of “Sick Girl,” though, it’s all about how the story is told: the personality of the filmmaker is front and center, and if you’re not attuned to Lucky McKee’s specific quirks, the movie will leave you cold. It’s all quirk. Fortunately for me, I really love the director’s voice, which makes “Sick Girl” one of the most purely enjoyable episodes of the show yet.
The key to loving “Sick Girl” is in Angela Bettis’ performance, and if you’re not on board for that, chances are you’re not going to be on board for this episode. Bettis makes some very, very big choices in the way she plays Ida, adopting a brand new voice (one that’s lower than her usual register) and a sort of screwball approach to the character that sets the table for the rest of the film. She’s daffy, for lack of a better word, but lovably so, and when things start to go south for Ida, our emotional connection to the character means we’re as devastated as she is. I love it when an actor takes big risks in a role—there’s a reason I’m drawn to early Nicolas Cage and all of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s work—and that’s exactly what Bettis does here. The partnership she has with McKee (she even cast him as the lead in her feature Roman, a kind of gender-reversed May) is one of my favorites in contemporary horror, and I love that she has never played the same part twice in his work. Ida is much closer to what she does in May, but only if that movie had been a straight comedy.
That’s not to say that “Sick Girl” is fully comic. It’s odd and it’s funny, but there’s an undercurrent of sadness that runs through the whole thing, too. While McKee and co-writer Sean Hood are refreshingly matter-of-fact about the characters’ sexuality—an attitude that’s actually pretty progressive given that America was still patting itself on the back for embracing Will & Grace at the time—there is the sense that finding the right partner has been difficult for both women, and that being gay hasn’t made that any easier. Ida’s landlady (Marcia Bennett) represents that hateful part of the population that believes homosexuality is an abomination and says as much, and though that’s as political as the film gets, it does present an additional burden at a time when one of the characters may or may not be turning into a bug. It’s a burden that these women carry with them at all times, the film suggests, which can obviously be extrapolated to the larger population. The world can be a difficult place.
It has been difficult for Ida and Misty, which is what makes it easy to retreat into quiet apartments and bugs and drawings of pixies (Misty is a literal Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Therein lies the tragedy of their relationship: the bug bite ensures that it’s over before it really has a chance to get started, because Misty stops acting like herself and turns into someone Ida would never want to be with. Or would she? The movie’s resolution seems to have it both ways, acting as both a darkly comic punchline and a romantic fulfillment of everything Ida wants—she gets to have the best of both worlds. Maybe I’m meant to see this as some sort of grotesque punishment, but I don’t look at it that way. I don’t think McKee does, either. Unlike a lot of horror films that are bleak for bleakness’ sake, “Sick Girl” rewards our investment in these characters and their relationship. At least, I think it does.
I don’t know exactly what constitutes a “Master” of horror. Obviously, I have no argument with any of the previous inclusions—people like Carpenter, Hooper, Gordon, Argento—but now the series is getting into some new territory, crowning filmmakers with only a few features under their belts as “masters” of the genre. At the time that “Sick Girl” debuted, McKee had only two features under his belt, only one of which—May—was available to the public. Calling him a “master” at that point could be seen as presumptuous. And, yet, his body of work in the years since has proven the title accurate, as McKee stands in the company of filmmakers like Ti West, Adam Green, and James Wan as one of the new Masters of Horror. “Sick Girl” is a key part of that body of work. As an episode of Masters of Horror, I get why it might not be to everyone’s taste. As a Lucky McKee movie, I love it… probably because I love Lucky McKee movies.
“Sick Girl” Score: 3.5/5
The official Masters of Horror Top 5 (so far) ranking:
Next time: The great David J. Schow and the great Larry Cohen team for a little “Pick Me Up”!
Editor's Note: To read all installments of this series, check out our Masters of Horror Rewatch hub!