As I've stated upfront in my previous MASTERS OF HORROR reviews for "Cigarette Burns" and "Dreams in the Witch-House," I'm a big fan of this Showtime series, which has nevertheless polarized horror fans into love-it and hate-it camps. I'm not really an all-or-nothing kinda guy (I'm not a slobbering geek, either), so I've given this show props where deserved, while acknowledging series creator Mick Garris and his crazy crew still have a few bugs to work out - so to speak.
Since we are, in fact, speaking of bugs (Pulitzer judging panelists please note the excellent segue), let's just skitter right over to the next release in Anchor Bay's MASTERS OF HORROR DVD collection, the first season's "Junior Master" submission from talented director Lucky McKee - creator of the excellent MAY and the critically lauded (but still un-fucking-released) THE WOODS. Starring McKee's muse, Angela Bettis - one of the horror genre's most talented new stars - "Sick Girl" is one of the series' more lighthearted (and therefore less scary) entries, but uses the conventions of the old-fashioned monster movie to tell a sweet and clever tale of two silly kids in love... and the literally sticky complications that come between them.
Bettis out-quirks herself in the role of Ida Teeter, a nerdy entomologist who has a wonderful rapport with all manner of creepy-crawlies but just can't seem to connect with her fellow human beings - not romantically, anyway. She has a close friendship with her lecherous co-worker Max (Jesse Hlubik), but considering Ida is steadfastly gay, there's nothing happening there... and any hopeful hookups are instantly dashed the moment she brings a girl home to meet her multi-legged menagerie.
Ida's luck appears to be changing for the better when she becomes the focus of attention for oddball hippy chick Misty Falls (cuddly Erin Brown, whom you pervs out there may know better under the pseudonym Misty Mundae), who often frequents the lobby of the museum where Ida works, drawing fairies in a sketchbook. After a nervous cute-meet, they set up a giddy first date, and before long we see the makings of goofy-girl bliss. Fueled by Thai food, booze and monkey movies (don't ask), our giggling lovebirds progress from clumsy make-out sessions to cohabitation in what seems like less than a day. Cinching the deal for Ida is Misty's apparent fascination and cozy familiarity with all things bug. Lucky coincidence? Not entirely... but frankly, that's the least of Ida's worries.
Seems the newest addition to the family, a huge Brazilian mutant beetle mailed to Ida by her mad-genius dad (played by McKee's own father, Mike), has taken a shine to Misty. After escaping its box, the toaster-sized critter (dubbed "Mick" in homage to Garris) manages to inject some sort of mutagen into her ear via a long proboscis and... well, let's just say the episode's title is a teensy bit of an understatement, and KNB's FX team pulls out all the stops for the climactic ooze-a-rama.
Despite some decent jump-shocks and one brief geyser of gore, "Sick Girl" is in essence a playful romantic comedy... albeit one with giant mutant bugs. Personally, I consider it one of the series' high points, despite the lack of serious scares and the fan debate over whether McKee has enough genre mileage to merit the "Master of Horror" title. (Considering his fellow Master John Landis, though a celebrated director for three decades, has only one genuine horror movie to his credit, I'm willing to cut McKee some slack here.) Whether the mantle of mastery is deserved or not, I'm not here to judge, but I will say that this comes off as one of the most touching genre tales I've seen in a while; McKee demonstrates an almost John Waters-like affection for the bizarre idiosyncrasies of his characters, to which he never condescends, finding instead the heart of the "outsider" in all of us - which is in itself the essence of any good monster story.
As with previous MOH installments, Anchor Bay's DVD presentation doesn't disappoint: the anamorphic image is formatted at 1.78:1, and is of near-pristine quality. The low-key lighting and deep colors McKee employs come across perfectly in this transfer. The audio is also first-rate, with a particularly strong command of the 5.1 surround track during the "Bug POV" scenes, which pound your senses from every angle. The music - sourced from many cool indie bands, one of which features Erin Brown - blends well with the action, often weaving in and out with the characters as they traverse their surroundings.
A commentary track is also provided, on which McKee is joined by Bettis, Hlubik and music composer Jaye Barnes Luckett for some funny quips and anecdotes - including the story behind "Uncle Stankus" whiskey, a screener DVD that froze at the precise moment Brown takes her shirt off, and how Bettis changed some line readings in rehearsal until they got the biggest laughs. Interestingly, even though McKee never mentions Brown's previous life as a soft-porn starlet, he does slip and call her "Misty" on more than one occasion... although admittedly, that is also her character's name. Hmm.
We also get the usual smorgasbord of extras, beginning with a meaty assortment of featurettes. There's a detailed bio/interview with McKee interspersed with clips from his work. We even get clips from his gore-soaked SOV debut ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE and see brief snippets of McKee in the title role of Bettis's directing debut, ROMAN... but alas, we get only stock-footage filler when he talks about THE WOODS. Oh well. We also get the excellent "Working with a Master" mini-doc, supplemented with clips and interviews. Since McKee has a shorter rap sheet than his fellow Masters, the supporting material here is a bit slimmer than that of, say, John Carpenter, but it's still a compelling overview of an impressive talent.
Separate interview segments are dedicated to Bettis, Brown and long-time McKee collaborator Hlubik, as well as professional bug-wrangler Brad MacDonald, whose description of the venomous Vietnamese centipede made me quite glad to be on the opposite side of the planet from its natural habitat (although I hear there are similar ones in Mexico... I'll be canceling that boozer in Cancun). Also included is a narration-free montage of behind-the-scenes footage, a still gallery, a large collection of trailers for MOH and other Anchor Bay titles, a McKee text bio, and a downloadable copy of the screenplay for DVD-ROM users.
It's not often one can describe a slimy, gory monster flick as "sweet and touching," but I can say without irony that handle applies here. Bettis is excellent in her funniest role ever, Brown is cute as a button (a naked button, that is) and turns in a bravura performance, and every other character gets their chance to shine. As he demonstrated with MAY, McKee is expert with metaphor in both imagery and narrative, and spins it in a subtle and witty manner. He avoids making "Sick Girl" a story about homosexuality in and of itself (in the original script, the main character is male, and Bettis actually approached her character from that angle) but uses the romance of two obvious outsiders as a way of squashing people's dehumanizing prejudices about "otherness" - and sometimes squashing people literally.