Conceptual films are always a welcome change from the norm. It takes vision and courage to put together a complex film of this nature and form a whole world without necessarily having to explain it all. Phobias, although an anthology, falls in this category. It has a backdrop that serves as a through subplot that justifies the several stories being told together. However, none of these elements fit particularly well with each other. After its long and fascinating presentation of its idea, Phobias is agonizingly shortsighted.
Concepts are not good only because they’re integrally attractive — they’re good because of the smart sum of their elements.
Ultimately, the film is a compilation of backstories that converge on a central horror story about an experiment in which someone is “weaponizing fear.” Aside from the obvious injection in the population by some means, there’s not much extension to this lightweight story. The personal stories of those that are locked in these facilities are more interesting than the dreadful sum and conclusion.
In the first segment, directed by Joe Sill and focusing on “Robophobia” (fear of robots and AI), a young man (Leonardo Nam, “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”) deals with an omnipresent entity that seems to control his surroundings with fierce determination. It lives in the electricity. In Maritte Go’s “Vehophobia” (fear of driving), an outlaw (Hana Mae Lee, “Pitch Perfect 3”) keeps having visions while driving; these visions are part of her recent criminal past. In director Camilla Belle’s “Hoplophobia” (fear of firearms), a single mom (Martina García, “It’s Not You, It’s Me”) must face the fact she killed a kid during a police raid. In Chris von Hoffmann’s “Ephebiphobia” (fear of youth), a home invasion turns into a sinister discovery as to the real intentions of the teenaged assailants. And finally in Jess Varley’s segment titled “Atelophobia” (fear of imperfection), an architect (singer/songwriter, Macy Gray) is dealing with failure in a twisted way (or at least I thought that’s what it was about).
All these victims are part of the experiment in which a mad doctor (Ross Partridge, “Stray”) at a secret facility is subjecting them to horrific flashbacks. Some how, some way he uses them.
The problem with Phobias is its unmanageable and illogical structure. There’s nothing resembling substance in what the film portrays as a central theme. Perhaps if Phobias was planned as a TV show, with each segment (and more knowing the incredible numbers of known phobias) an episode, it would have been more coherent. Instead, we get hastily thrown together sections of scares tied to a consistent reminder of the laughably silly hand that’s controlling everything. And as a consequence, the film’s ending suffers too much from an unplanned need for conclusion. Jess Varley who directs this part of the movie (titled “Outpost 37”) turns this most valuable resource and finishes the movie without much explanation. Further, it is ended as more of an action film, an unforgivable decision that does away with basically everything depicted up to that point.
Though Phobias has some seasoned talent behind it, it falls far short failing to really probe into its concept, which on paper is an interesting one. Instead, we get our very own version of “mad doctors with B-movie paraphernalia.”