Showtime’s Masters of Horror debuted in 2005. It was a horror anthology series where a mix of established and emerging horror directors were invited to create hour long horror films with no restrictions. They could do whatever they wanted with the budget provided.
Sick Girl is a horror/comedy film about the world of entomology. Dr. Teeter is a shy researcher struggling to find love in the world. Her life is consumed by her work, going so far as to live with more sensitive and dangerous insect specimens in her apartment so they get the treatment they deserve. The same day Dr. Teeter decides to ask out the woman in the lobby of the lab, a mysterious package arrives with a rare specimen she’s never seen before.
The first thing you need to know about Sick Girl is not the plot or theme. No, the first thing you need to know about Sick Girl is that director Lucky McKee wanted his collaborator Angela Bettis to star in his episode of Masters of Horror. Sick Girl was written to star a man in the role of Dr. Teeter. Instead, they mostly played the script exactly as written, changing the name of the character and pronouns to reflect a woman playing the role. This is the reason for Bettis’ dropped voice and very controlled body language throughout the episode.
In 2005, Lucky McKee was the hot new horror director. His debut feature May was so positively received by critics that Roger Ebert himself tried to start an awards season campaign for Angela Bettis to be recognized for Leading Actress at the Oscars. McKee’s films are driven by an absurd and horrifying exploration of the rigidity of gender roles in society, often leading to bloody showdowns caused by a fight for independence from those trying to define who everyone should be. He’s also an extremely loyal director, often working with the same collaborators in front of and behind the scenes. He will actively write new scenes and characters into his films to find roles for every actor who impressed him at auditions. He has a loyal team of collaborators and fans who will gladly work with him again and again on some very strange horror films.
McKee has a gift for putting fully realized characters onscreen in his work and Sick Girl is no exception. The focus is creating real, grounded relationships so the audience is invested in what’s going to happen. The blossoming romance between Ida Teeter and Misty Falls feels like it could be a hit indie romance out of Sundance. The conflict between Ida and her landlord, or the bros talking to bros friendship with her coworker feel real and honest. If you took the horror elements out of a Sick Girl, you would still have a funny and entertaining story of a woman struggling to find a work/life balance.
Enter the creepy crawlies and the monster transformation angle. Sick Girl is a mad scientist/creature feature story. Dr. Teeter’s life is surrounded by insects that would terrify most people. She even finds a cockroach in her lunch and chooses to examine it instead of leave in terror. Her quest for knowledge is her fatal flaw, putting her face to face with a bizarre and deadly specimen that will change her life forever.
Sick Girl earns its transformation into a monster movie. The effects start simple—a gooey insect appendage grabbing for Misty on the first date, some perspective shots of the new creature scampering through the apartment—and slowly take over the narrative. Let’s just say Sick Girl is what would happen if The Fly was actually about studying insects, not teleportation. It’s committed.
Sick Girl is one of the more polarizing episodes of Masters of Horror. It is strange, even by the standards of a series where directors could do whatever they wanted. There’s a joy to the episode more often seen in a quirky indie dramedy than horror. It’s one of the few episodes driven by female characters who don’t fit so neatly into the horror tropes of survivor girl, immoral victim, or deadly temptress.
It’s also an unabashedly queer horror film. The decision to have Dr. Teeter be a woman opened up the door to also deal with issues of sexuality and homophobia, which was enough in 2005 to turn a lot of fans off. I doubt Sick Girl will ever get a renaissance in critical acclaim and fandom like Jennifer’s Body has recently, but they were both playing at the same set of disadvantages for their time.
Content warning: nudity, gore, foul language, homophobia, violence against women
Up next: S1E11: “Pick Me Up,” directed by Larry Cohen.