Anthology horror has always been a difficult subgenre to get right...
...Finding the perfect balance between multiple directors’ styles and incorporating them into a coherent narrative is a daunting task; one that Phobias grapples with to mixed results.
Written and directed by Camilla Belle, Maritte Lee Go, Joe Sill, Jess Varley, and Chris von Hoffman, Phobias is five segments glued together by a shared narrative framework about a mad doctor who is kidnapping people who suffer from extreme phobias with the intent of extracting and weaponizing their fear.
Each of the film's five segments; Joe Sill’s “Robophobia”, Maritte Go’s “Vehophobia”, Chris von Hoffman’s “Ephebiphobia”, Camilla Belle’s “Hoplophobia”, and Jess Varley’s “Atelophobia”, explore the phobia-centric predicament that landed each patient in Outpost 37. These segments are broken up by brief scenes of patients in the outpost being subject to fear-extracting procedures.
As far as anthology horror film premises go, Phobias is sound. The overarching narrative is a bit over the top in terms of its sci-fi horror angle, but all the pieces fit together well enough to feel purposeful rather than aimless.
The segments themselves, however, begin to show the limitations of the anthology format. The reality is that each segment is simply not allotted enough time to fully explore their themes. With a total runtime of just 85 minutes, most segments feel like they end just when they begin to get going.
For example, the opening segment, “Robophobia” (A fear of artificial intelligence), in which Johnny (Leonardo Nam) befriends an A.I. program, feels cut short just as the horror sets in. What begins as a promising friendship evolves into the A.I. hitching a ride in Johnny's body and helping him enact revenge on those who committed a hate crime against him.
It doesn't take long for the A.I. to become power-hungry and evolve into a threatening physical manifestation. But just as this new and frightening supernatural development begins, the segment ends. A solid performance from Leonardo Nam and a fun, if not familiar, premise that I wanted more from is a strong start. It's just a shame the other segments never really topped this one for me.
This segment bleeds into introducing Outpost 37 and Dr. Wright (Ross Partridge), the mad doctor who runs the facility. Here Johnny meets the other patients having their fear extracted, and this triggers flashbacks which serve as each segment of the film.
I like the concept of connecting the film's segments rather than them merely being scary stories that lack a sense of unity. But these in-between segments are so short-lived they barely justify their inclusion; they exist only to keep Phobias narrative on the tracks.
While the film's overarching narrative wasn't as fleshed out as I would have liked, I was impressed by the amount of variety found within each phobia segment.
For instance, the second entry, “Vehophobia” (A fear of driving), blends Bonnie and Clyde with the killer car horror of Christine, in which the spirit of a murdered man comes back to haunt the women who killed him. The third story, “Ephebiphobia” (A fear of youth), sees a teacher fall prey to a home invasion perpetrated by vengeful ex-students.
Segment four, “Hoplophobia” (A fear of firearms) sees a cop suffering from severe PTSD after an accidental shooting. And finally, the closing “Atelophobia” (A fear of imperfection) sees a woman drugging her coworkers and taking their best bits and adding them to her…collection.
There is a refreshing attention paid to each of the five segments to ensure no one segment feels like the one preceding it. This allows Phobias to explore multiple horror subgenres, providing a variety of scares and experiences.
“Vehophobia”'s pairing of crime and supernatural makes for a creepy commentary on relationships and spooky revenge. “Ephebiphobia” presents a killer dynamic between youthful assailants and a terrified but flawed victim.
“Hoplophobia” is a commentary on the ramifications of lethal force and includes some intense choreographed violence. And finally, “Atelophobia” features what is easily the most viscerally disturbing body horror segment of the film and makes for a wonderfully nasty end chapter.
Fans of anthology horror like myself will undoubtedly get more out of Phobias' various blends of horrors. That said, Phobias never manages to shake its time restraints, more often than not cutting its true potential short. The somewhat underdeveloped structure tying all the segments together makes Phobias a promising and weird experiment that falls short of its potential.
Phobias comes to VOD and digital from Vertical Entertainment on March 19th.
By Jay Krieger
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