What we classify as “horror” seems to depend on what triggers the individual. It’s only fitting, then, that Phobias, a horror omnibus narrative of sorts, collects five different clinical phobias. If one doesn’t have a fear of artificial intelligence, then the fear of children may do the trick. There is so much promise in the mere germ of that concept. Unfortunately, anything resembling true chills or a worthwhile commentary on social fears fritters away into near incoherence by the end of the film.
If anything, the opening credits of Phobias are a real doozy. Off the top, a sequence of kaleidoscopic imagery and a throbbing auditory dissonance immediately thrills and places one on edge. If only the feature presentation that followed was as tantalizing.
In true anthology fashion, the movie Frankensteins together different creative visions from different filmmakers. Here, each segment begins with an intertitle of each respective phobia. “Robophobia,” written and directed by Joe Sill, breaks the ice. Leonardo Nam plays Johnny, a techie who’s just scraping by and taking care of his ailing father. He’s also a punching bag for racist thugs. Johnny’s life changes once he meets an online “friend,” who already knows his name and his bank account balance. This friend soon becomes a mere disembodied voice that gets rid of all the bad eggs in Johnny’s life. That’s right, it’s like a Black Mirror episode with a touch of Spike Jonze’s Her, only far less romantic.
From there, Johnny is captured and taken to Outpost 37 by mad scientist Dr. Wright (an unflappable Ross Partridge). One by one, Wright hooks up his damaged guinea pigs to a machine called the “Shrinker” that forces them to endure their fears. It’s through these sessions that we get to experience the psychological torture of Johnny’s female bunkmates. First, it’s Sami’s turn with “Vehophobia,” co-written by Broderick Engelhard and director Maritte Go. Sami, played by Hana Mae Lee (a delightfully weird scene-stealer in the Pitch Perfect trilogy), is a punkish criminal whose fear of driving didn’t happen overnight. When a seemingly easy score goes south, something begins taking control of Sami’s car. Attention to the rising silhouette in Sami’s backseat is particularly chilling on Go’s part. Mostly, though, only first-timers will lap up the possessed-car horror tropes on display here.
One of the more effective segments is writer-director Chris von Hoffmann’s “Ephebiphobia.” Without even being in the doc’s chair, Emma (Lauren Miller Rogen) recalls the origin story of her facial scar. A married but lonely teacher grading school papers at home, she texts her boyfriend to come over while her hubby isn’t there. Little does Emma know that three unstable students have malevolent plans for her. Confined to 10 minutes, Hoffmann skillfully builds tension, and who doesn’t love a lingering shot of a knife block, only to return to said knife block with a newly empty slot? As its own bedtime story of youth turned rotten, “Ephebiphobia” is unnerving. Nestled in the middle of the comparably inferior segments, it stands out for being the most grounded in the real world.
Actress Camilla Belle makes her feature debut with “Hoplophobia,” which stands for the fear of weapons. It follows SWAT team veteran Alma (Martina Garcia), who’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following an accidental death during a raid. Her crippling fear will culminate with a triggering payoff that should be a gut punch. As it plays, it’s more so clunky and even exploitative in cheapening serious PTSD for action-movie choreography.
Macy Gray—yes, the pop R&B performance artist who also receives an executive producing credit—plays Renee, the facially scarred “mummy” of Johnny’s new bunkmates. She freely tells her story of how she got all of her bandages—and here we go with “Atelophobia,” written and directed by Jess Varley. You see, Renee once was a high-pressured architect who would never match her father’s expectations. When Renee invites her team members over to her home to go over their latest project, poisoned Chinese food is consumed, and then body parts are severed. Gray plays this role to the hilt with a limping gait and gloves on her hands at all times (and you will receive answers to both quirks). Director Varley employs an increasingly screechy score of strings and synthesizers to creepy effect as Renee’s tale reaches its gory, twisted conclusion. It can be a trip to watch, but the tone seems to be of its own piece when it nearly falls into camp.
Within an anthology format, it’s no secret that the wraparound linking together all of the vignettes can often be the weakest link. In this patchwork’s case, the connective tissue, dubbed “Outpost 37,” should be fundamental, but it feels severely underdeveloped. As the movie winds down to hopefully reveal Dr. Wright’s endgame in weaponizing his patients’ fears, this idea just peters out like a mere afterthought. Aside from being hampered by iffy CGI fire and electrical currents, the film is a slick-looking package. As directed by Jess Varley (who also helmed the “Atelophobia” segment), all of the coverage in Dr. Wright’s lab assumes the same sickly, greenish color palette as one of the earlier Saw movies, albeit little of the queasy dread.
For a film loftily named after fear, Phobias would seem to be a cinematic potluck of what scares us. Or at the very least, it could educate on phobias one might have only heard in a spelling bee. This doesn’t happen. In fact, revisit After Midnight instead. That 1989 campfire-horror anthology about an insane college professor teaching his students a real course in the psychology of fear may not stand the test of time, but it achieved what it set out to do. In Phobias, there’s little to be afraid of and no satisfying reward or discernible point to any of it. If those aren’t cardinal sins, what is?
Those enticing opening credits, though.
Vertical Entertainment is releasing Phobias on VOD and digital on March 19, 2021.