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Monday, March 15, 2021

[Review] Despite Intriguing Premise, ‘Phobias’ Is a Muddled Psychological Horror Anthology

When it comes to their depiction in media, phobias have predominantly been portrayed through either the lens of comedy or melodrama. Individuals will be afraid of X and each interaction with X makes for a laugh out loud moment; or said phobia leads to gratuitous amounts of campy emotion, underselling the suffering that can come from such an affliction. The horror genre has been a serious offender when it comes to the latter, yet it also has the remarkable power to highlight the struggles of mental illness. It is this type of horror that makes the premise to Phobias so damn intriguing. 

“Five dangerous patients, suffering from extreme phobias at a government testing facility, are put to the ultimate test under the supervision of a crazed doctor and his quest to weaponize fear.” The idea of forcing someone to endure a nightmare version of Exposure Therapy sounds terrifying, but also lends itself to the opportunity for character studies and suspenseful psychological horror. But for its moments of intrigue, Phobias’ efforts to explore the mind fail. While touching upon some cool concepts, the overall narrative is messy. With meandering plot progression and unfortunately vapid characters, Phobias offers a cerebral experience that doesn’t live up to its promise.

The film is broken up into six sections – each directed by a different person. These sections follow one of the film’s key characters, with one taking place during the present day. What is neat about the character focused sections is how they are introduced with a title card referring to a specific phobia. Robophobia (the fear of robots and such devices of the ilk), directed by Joe Sill, kicks off the film by introducing Johnny (Leonardo Nam). He’s a young guy who gets picked on by a racist bully, lives next door to a man who abuses his wife, and who lives with a sick dad. He is a nice guy who just likes to hangout on computers. One day he gets a call from a random person, which then sets off weird happenings. Shortly after, the film cuts to the government facility where Johnny is being transported to and where the audience will find the rest of the main cast.

The crazed doctor (Ross Partidge) has a device that one of the characters calls the Shrinker; when hooked up to the machine, patients undergo a nightmarish experience where they endure psychological torture. In Vehophobia (the fear of driving), directed by Maritte Lee Go, the narrative shifts to a bizarre hell ride involving Sami (Hana Mae Lee). On paper, these set ups are an excellent means to explore characters, providing them the individual time they need for audiences to understand their psyches and backstory. In practice, not so much.

Sami’s story is very much focused on her being in a car; the car ends up doing some weird stuff and causing mayhem. There comes a scene where something cruel Sami did is shared, coming across tonally different compared to the surreal car stuff. What one may surmise from this is that this is a moment from Sami’s life that triggered the phobia in her, and the Shrinker is making her re-live it in a twisted way. One could view this as the film’s attempt to show how the machine takes the pain of each person’s phobias and weaponizes it. 

But in this neat approach, there comes some off narrative hiccups. – one example being Emma’s (Lauren Miller Rogen) segment Ephebiphobia, a fear of youth. Directed by Chris Von Hoffman, Emma’s story doesn’t take place within the chambers of the Shrinker; instead the viewer is told that her increased paranoia is due to several uses of the machine. With that in mind, while her sequence plays out – what is it then that the audience is experiencing? Memory? Her time in the machine? There’s no way to tell. It’s the sort of oversight that has the potential to confuse the viewer and take away from the experience, if the lack of character depth hasn’t done that already.

The core problem with Phobias is how little it offers in terms of character depth and emotion. For a film interested in exploring phobias and fears, it isn’t doing much of that. A lot of the film plays out like psychological torture porn, with nothing for the characters to take away and grow. The audience comes to learn what each patient is afraid of through minor context, but there’s never any greater understanding into each character. Nothing meaningful in why they have their fears; just a brief, fantastical play out of the trauma that triggered their respective phobias. 

This lack of context ultimately makes for a confusing experience and a dissonance between audience and characters. One can certainly feel for them in the crappy situation they find themselves in, but beyond typical horror movie setting, there is no depth to feel for their struggle. In fact, besides a couple minor moments, there is no sort of examination or dive into how these people feel or who they are. They each get one relatively small portion devoted to them in the film, but no actual care when it comes to who they are as a person. 

The one saving grace among the sub-narratives is Alma’s (Martina García) narrative. Hoplophobia, the fear of weapons, directed by Camilla Belle (When A Stranger Calls), is a deep take on someone suffering from PTSD and the impact of something tragic in their life. It goes to show how Alma reacts in social matters differently, or the unease she feels washing a knife at the sink. It is the sort of examination one may expect from Phobias, but is missing so much. And yet, this narrative is shared when Alma is entered into the Shrinker; so unlike Emma, her story is shared with the viewer via the machine. Are we experiencing a warped memory? A fantasy based off her fear? No way to tell, once again.

Another shout out I want to give is to Atelophobia, not doing something right or not being good enough, directed by Jess Varley. Featuring Renee (Macy Gray), this is most brutal when it comes to creepiness. It isn’t a long part of the film, but it goes to some unnerving places.

Besides these character sections, the overall plot to Phobias is vapid. During the present-day timeline at the facility, nothing is happening. As far as the film’s narrative path goes: a couple conversations take place, the next sub-narrative appears, the process repeats. The character driven portions and those where said characters are present in the building move nothing forward. The ending comes so abruptly that it will more than likely require a rewind or two. So much is tossed at the audience to process; at one point, as the other core characters are confused as to what’s going on, Johnny explains they are at a facility where their fears have been used against them. At two hours and ten minutes into the movie, why is the film’s main premise coming up now? There’s also an element from earlier in the story that reappears, and it throws the logic of the film completely out the window.

For all these complaints though, each actor is doing their best, the directing itself isn’t that bad, and there’s even some heavy moments of horror. That said, Phobias just doesn’t stand a chance with its weak character writing. For as intriguing as its premise may come across, this film is yet another shortcoming of psychological horror. 



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3654896/review-despite-intriguing-premise-phobias-muddled-psychological-horror-anthology/

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