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Monday, March 21, 2022

‘Hypochondriac’ SXSW Review – Tackling Mental Illness Through a Queer Horror Lens

Depictions of mental illness are common in film, especially in the horror genre. They’ve become even more prevalent in recent years as filmmakers have used their work to aid in destigmatizing mental illness, but these films also come with tropes that we’ve seen many times before. Is our protagonist going crazy? Or is there something supernatural haunting him? Or maybe there is some other explanation for the hallucinations he’s having (if they are even hallucinations). Hypochondriac, writer/director Addison Heimann‘s feature directorial debut, opts to remove one of the more common tropes of the genre: the unreliable narrator (there’s never any doubt that Will is mentally ill). He also makes his film explicitly queer, adding an interesting twist to a genre that has been, for lack of a better term, done to death.

Following a tense opening sequence in which his mentally ill mother (Marlene ForteKnives Out) tries to kill him, Hypochondriac flashes forward 18 years to a now 30-year-old Will (Zach Villa, American Horror Story: 94) who has become a professional potter. His boss Blossom (Madeline ZimaCalifornication, The Collector) is selfish and unprofessional, but he’s got a friend in co-worker Sasha (Yumarie Morales) and a supportive boyfriend in Luke (Devon Graye, I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore). After receiving a phone call from his mother after 10 years of silence, Will begins experiencing strange hallucinations of a man in a wolf costume, leading to an injury at work that causes him to begin to lose functioning of his arms. Fearing that he is going down the same path that his mother did nearly two decades ago, Will goes off on his own to figure out what is going on with his body and mind.

Heimann released a statement with the film explaining that his goal was to “capture visually what it felt like to have a mental breakdown,” since the film is based on one of his own. This makes Hypochondriac an especially personal project for the writer/director, who had previously written and starred in short films like 2019’s amusing Jeff Drives You. Of course, that knowledge shouldn’t affect your opinion of the film (any movie should be able to stand on its own two feet), but it does add an extra layer to the proceedings that open a window into an experience that many people aren’t familiar with. In that department, it excels.

The film’s title comes from the multiple doctor’s visits Will makes, in an attempt to get a diagnosis. At each visit, each medical “professional” patronizes him and brushes off his concerns, crediting his episodes to stress. Platitudes like “you’d be surprised how much the mind can affect the body” are offered and “helpful” advice like “don’t ever Google” is doled out. These sequences aim to poke a hole in the US’s flawed medical system and here again, Heimann succeeds.

The issue lies within the genre conventions, which become somewhat repetitive and don’t really break any new ground for this type of story. It’s refreshing that Heimann avoids the “is-he-or-isn’t-he-crazy?” aspect that tends to come with the territory, but without that type of conflict, there’s a distinct lack of narrative momentum propelling Hypochondriac forward. We get multiple instances of Will hallucinating the wolf-costumed man (cue the Donnie Darko comparisons), embarrassing himself in public, and then being told to seek help. These scenes are interesting at first, but after the second or third time, they can become frustrating. Given Heimann’s statement, this is the intended effect, but it doesn’t always make for the most compelling watch. Telling stories about mental illness through a horror lens is nothing new, but this is a rare instance where the push and pull between the two genres doesn’t always work because it’s these horror aspects that feel the most humdrum, adding a layer of monotony to the story.

But where Hypochondriac falters in its genre elements, it succeeds in its human drama. The scenes that Will shares with his father (Chris Doubek) and Luke, as they each offer their own unique way of offering help that Will refuses, are heartbreaking. It is in these moments that Heimann is most effective at conveying the emotional and physical toll that mental illness can have on loved ones. Most importantly, he does this while never losing sight of the reason Will is refusing their help. This leads to Will’s self-isolation, exacerbating his already-worsening symptoms.

Hypochondriac is a solid, if not particularly innovative addition to the mental health horror sub-genre, with a queer twist thrown into the mix. It is that queer component that adds something new to the tropes we’ve seen a hundred times (you’ll get to see a demon perform anilingus, so that’s fun) but one can’t help but feel this is an interesting wrinkle in well-worn territory as opposed to a genuine subversion of genre tropes.

Hypochondriac had its world premiere at SXSW and will release through XYZ Films on April 8, 2022.

The post ‘Hypochondriac’ SXSW Review – Tackling Mental Illness Through a Queer Horror Lens appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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