“You would be shocked at how the mind can affect the body…”
…I’m someone who suffers from chronic, undiagnosed pain, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that basic bullshit from medical professionals. Unseen pain, both physical and mental, is one of the most difficult things to treat, because we live in a society where the go to reaction is to look past someone in distress unless they’ve got a damn rod sticking out of their head or something. With his debut feature, Hypochondriac, which just premiered at SXSW, writer/director Addison Heimann treks deep into the darkness of mental illness with a film that is both profoundly moving and terribly frightening.
Hypochondriac follows Will (Zach Villa), a man with a traumatic history from growing up with a mother (Marlene Forte) suffering from mental illness. It’s been eighteen years since Will last saw her—and since she tried to kill him in a delusional fit of rage—but he’s happy now, working as a potter and living with his boyfriend, Luke (Devon Graye). When Will begins receiving paranoid calls from his mother and finds himself haunted by a terrifying, wolf-like thing, he begins to doubt his own sanity, fearing he may be on the same path as his mother.
When a film opens with a card that reads, “based on a real breakdown,” you have to prepare yourself for something difficult, and Hypochondriac is no exception. This film broke me, again, and again, and again. If you currently or have previously dealt with mental illness or suicidal tendencies as I have, I must warn you, this is not an easy watch. Far from it. But the other side of that is that it’s also an incredibly powerful experience that legitimizes pain that can’t be seen yet which so much of us go through.
It all starts with Villa, who delivers a raw, vulnerable performance that could move boulders, and if we’re lucky, shake the foundation of a society that too often overlooks the ills of the mind. Will isn’t one of those awful tropes that we see of the mentally ill screaming like deranged madmen such as in Hellraiser II. He’s just like you and me, as all people suffering with mental illness are. He's charming. He’s caring. He’s a human being. Villa’s relatability allows anyone who’s never been in this position to understand the tragedy of an illness that doesn’t just flip like a switch, but instead is a gradual process that eats your life away. Villa’s impressive portrayal takes us through it all in what is one of the most devastating performances of the year, while Heimann’s script captures the terror of a creeping paranoia with pinpoint accuracy as sharp as a wolf’s talons.
One of the worst parts about having a phantom pain that others can’t see with their own eyes is getting anyone to believe it. As Will begins to get worse, he visits doctor after doctor, hearing the same thing from them all, “you would be shocked at how the mind can affect the body”. No one believes Will, not even his own father (Chris Doubek), who should know better considering the experience with Will’s mother. Hypochondriac makes you want to scream at the top of your lungs. Heimann builds a frustrating fear that connects the audience with Will’s own anger and paranoia at the situation. I’m shocked that this is Heimann’s first feature, because he is masterful at crafting a slow and steady terror that tears at the heart as much as it does the mind.
What’s fascinating is how Heimann somewhat discreetly combines the myth of the werewolf with mental illness. I don’t mean sprouting fur and howling at the moon. This is a different kind of werewolf movie. At its hairy heart, the werewolf has long been a metaphor for mental illness and that thing inside ourselves that we’re afraid of. Hypochondriac toys with the myth by introducing a man in a wolf costume that will remind many of Donnie Darko’s Frank the Bunny. A knock here is that you could argue it’s a complete rip-off. Rip-off or not, this beast is effectively frightening. If you thought Frank the Bunny was creepy, just wait until you meet Will’s wolf. This thing is nightmarish, filling the soundtrack with guttural growls that will shake you to your core.
A psychological exploration of the horror of mental illness, Hypochondriac torments Will and the audience with a trippy terror that makes it hard to define what’s real and what isn’t. Heimann often incorporates dual imagery that splits the screen like a mirror, implying two selves and two versions of the same moment. This is a moody film with a methodical direction from Heimman, using slow fade transitions and a quiet approach to heighten the isolated loneliness of Will’s decline. It’s an intense experience that prods at some of our greatest fears, that desperate trap of not being able to get the help or understanding we need, unsure of what’s happening or what will happen next.
Hypochondriac is not a film for the faint of heart. It will disturb you. It will rip at you. And it will destroy you. This is that rare tearjerker of a horror film that rests in your soul long after the credits roll. The pain in Heimann’s movie is pure, and real, and it brought tears to my eyes more than once. Most importantly, Heimann approaches the subject with great care, never coming off as if he’s exploiting mental health for entertainment, but instead trying to bring attention to a serious issue through a well-told story with the power to reach into the heart of anyone.
The journey offered by Hypochondriac is a tough one, wrought with pain and tragedy, yet it’s one well worth taking. I adored this movie. Whatever Heimann does next, I want to be first in line to see it.
By Matt Konopka