DVD: Phobia / Phobia! / Phobia: A Descent into Terror (1980)

January 24, 2013 | By

Film: Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: KINO Lorber / Unobstructed View

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released: October 22, 2019

Genre: Thriller / Suspense / CanCon

Synopsis: Someone is killing a psychiatrist’s patients using their most fearsome phobias.

Special Features: Audio commentary by film historians Paul Corupe and Jason Pichonsky / 2 interviews: actresses Susan Hogan (14:39) and Lisa Langlois (5:58) / Trailers for “Phobia” and others.

 

 

Review:

During Canada’s tax shelter years, a number of major directors with international hits were lured /coaxed into making films whose quality wasn’t the most important aspect, nor that they should make any money: they were simply productions into which investors (especially dentists & doctors) could dump funds and write off (initially) 100% of their investment.

The films didn’t have to be good, and didn’t necessarily require a proper theatrical release, either, so with no creative goal to which to aspire, Huston apparently said yes to directing a script where five credited writers had a had in rendering it utterly banal: writer / director hack Gary Sherman (Vice Squad, Poltergeist III, Wanted: Dead of Alive, Murderous Vision); Ronald Shusett (Alien, Sherman’s Dead & Buried, and Total Recall); Hammer’s main scribe & occasional director Jimmy Sangster (Maniac, The Nanny, Fear in the Night); Peter Bellwood (Highlander, and Highlander II: The Quickening), and one-time director Lew Lehman (The Pit).

That’s 5 sets of hands in the cookie jar, plus Huston bringing in psychiatrist Melvin Hill to ensure the character of Dr. Peter Ross comes off as a credible yet ‘extreme’ psychiatrist bent on breaking peoples’ phobias by immersing them in their greatest fears. Ross passes his first collegial inquisition with flying colours, and is permitted by his peers to push forward, subjecting snakes, dizzying heights, masses of people, and non-consensual group sex (er, rape) to specific patients on temporary leave from prison.

His process is somewhat novel: a giant media room where a patient is surrounded by three massive film panels onto which Ross plays a triptych montage of phobic imagery and guides his patients by voice from a large control panel – a lo-fi 3D environment designed to expand the scope of more visually oriented phobias.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

 

Unfortunately, the patients begin to die off, killed by someone who not only knows their specific phobias, but is able to meticulously plan the paths that will guide them towards their doom. The script’s red herring is supposed to infer there’s a vengeful ex-patient or rival doctor, or perhaps even Ross’ ex-girlfriend who also happens to be a colleague at the undisguised University of Toronto campus, but the finale is hardly a shock: when Ross admits his murderous machinations to current squeeze Jenny St. Clair (Susan Hogan, an absolute ace at playing screeching, teary-eyed victims), the audience is supposed to believe it all stems from a childhood event, which is somewhat rooted in classic giallo tropes.

The explanation for the madness: Ross, phobic of water after his sister drowned, was cured of his fear when his impatient father tossed him into a lake in a sink-or-swim test. Feeling reborn, Ross realized at an early age total immersion could cure people, but if they simply couldn’t move forward as fast as himself, they deserved to die – hence the executions by phobic-induced stressors, which most come off as ridiculous.

An exploding file cabinet, death by service elevator, drowning in a bathtub, and lethal snakebite do not make a scary film, but there is one effective sequence in which a patient, chased by the police, ascends a derelict building. Threatening to jump, he demands Ross come to the scene. Viewed from afar, Ross seems to do everything possible in easing the man’s fears in the hopes of getting him back on solid flooring, but the patient jumps. In his confession to Jenny, Ross says in a chillingly calm tone, “All I had to do was tell him to look down,” and the simplicity of that line resulted in the man giving up, and falling to his death like a rag doll.

 

END OF SPOILERS

Phobia has a recognizable CanCon cast, but with little character material to work, the film is populated by often dull or overhyped caricatures, especially the abusive cops played by scene-chewing John Colicos (Battlestar: Galactica) and greasy-haired Kenneth Welsh (Twin Peaks). Lisa Langlois (Happy Birthday to Me, Deadly Eyes) is very naked before her drowning, but the brief bits of T&A can’t save a deadly dull thriller seemingly directed by a man utterly bored during production.

Ross’ patients are also dressed according to their persona, so we have a thug, a rich bitch, a college hottie, a nerd, and an overall-clad con named Bubba King (Robert O’Ree) who wears a Popeye sailor cap because (presumably) it provides a bit of visual irony: a macho con brought to tears when confronted by snakes.

And as Ross, Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky & Hutch) is more wooden than a maple tree; one hopes he picked up enough directorial pointers from Huston, as Glaser eventually moved into directing, stepping away from acting for nearly 17 years until 2001.

On VHS, Phobia appears poorly shot (odd, considering it was nominated for a Genie Award), but KINO’s DVD and Blu-ray editions are a real treat: some grainy scenes notwithstanding (perhaps due to a decision to use fast film on cloudy days), the soft but serene widescreen images of Reginald H. Morris are very lovely. opting for a subdued colour palette, Huston’s film is both visually and aesthetically tasteful; even the set design and costumes (sailor hat excepted) are devoid of tacky or garish elements.

Phobia isn’t set in Toronto, but there’s little effort to hide small details, such as transit logos and the subway packed with local ads, a jog in High Park, and what are clearly Toronto police uniforms and yellow squad cars. There’s also a repeated shot of Glaser driving is sexy blue Triumph sportscar down Yonge St., passing iconic record stores and diners.

André Gagnon’s score is rarely dramatic, and his schmaltzy, string-heavy love theme for Ross and Jenny is far too treacly; the likely aim was to showcase the genuine romantic tethers between Ross and Jenny, but the arrangements overstates rather than supports.

Perhaps the film’s most Canadianesque aspect (besides being set in an arid, cold winter) is Ross using his down time to play hockey. During his first interrogation with the detectives, his athletic activities are questioned in an amusing quip (“Isn’t it odd a man from California plays hockey?”), but it’s worth pointing out Glaser would return to the Greater Toronto Area and film the cult classic The Cutting Edge (1992), which was partly set in Ontario.

Paramount, who had produced and released token CanCon productions during the 1970s, lost faith in the film and while obliged to give it a Canadian release, Phobia graced international screens and gained its minor cult reputation as one of John Huston’s worst films through home video and TV airings.  The film was later available via streaming from Amazon.com, but it’s taken 39 years for the film to enjoy a second run in widescreen since its theatrical release.

KINO’s edition is pretty much what CanCon fans have been waiting for, done right, with heavy input from Canadian historians who know the period very well.

Paul Corupe and Jason Pichonsky did their due diligence in researching and making more than a few calls to get the record straight on the film’s 7 year journey from Sherman’s spec Hammer script to credited and uncredited work by Shussett and Dan O’Bannon (Dead & Buried, Alien, Blue Thunder) respectively, and the various rewrite stages before the film’s location was reset from Britain to Hogtown. Most of the locations are local, and in her lengthy interview, co-star Hogan adds both she and Glaser were flown to Los Angeles and Atlanta for some external scenes – namely the great jump scene from a soon-to-be-demolished building.

Pichonsky and Corupe are especially kind to Huston’s clunker, and make a pretty convincing case that Phobia wasn’t lazily directed nor is devoid of some themes within the director’s expansive and illustrious filmography. There is an admitted reverence in seeing a much-maligned tax shelter production in its best form to date, and appreciating details which aren’t the product of laziness: the three-panel ‘immersion’ room can be seen as a precursor to VR-styled treatment for specific phobias and PTSD issues, and while they seem hokey, there’s a certain elegance to the room’s simplistic design where a patient sits and is deliberately overwhelmed by massive images, from the lengthy ‘forced orgy’ to the film’s most chilling footage of a child-like doll gently falling past an endless series of balconies before its ceramic skull shatters on the concrete.

Hogan is especially reverent towards Huston and the lasting experience she gained, and Langlois more or less opines a Huston film is better than a hack production with zero creative ambitions by its makers, but the film’s hampered by terrible dialogue and simplistic scenes to keep the plot moving. Of the five characters, less time is spent on the specific phobia of car thief Johnny Venuti (David Eisner); he feels like a youthful add-on to a cast dominated by near to middle-aged characters.

His bloodless death by elevator is well-choreographed, but a prior scene in which Ross descends from Jenny’s artist loft contains a remarkable gaffe: as the elevator descends, a gaffer is clearly seen in the upper right,riding down with Glaser – a glaring gaffe because of its oddness and creepiness.

American and international film fans can finally see a supposedly rare and long unavailable Huston misstep, but little by little significant slices of Canadian film history are finally materializing on home video, benefiting from excellent HD transfers, and when done right, sporting edifying special features that contextualize this peculiar boom period during which the Canadian film industry grew and attempted to assert itself in spite of the vertical integration enjoyed by U.S. studios who controlled an overwhelming amount theatre screens north of the 49th parallel.

 

Quick Postcript

Huston would still go on to make the Anniemusical (1982), after which he regained his mojo and finished his directorial career with Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), and The Dead (1987).

Cinematographer Reginald Morris would lens most of Bob Clark’s classics (including the seminal slasher, Black Christmas, and the wonderful Murder by Decree), plus the oddball thriller Welcome to Blood City (1977) and the ridiculous Murder by Phone / Bells (1982) for another international director slumming in Toronto, Michael Anderson.

A brief article for Shabbat Shalom by Rick Magder, son of Phobia producer Zale Magder, provides a tiny glimpse into the film activities within Toronto.

Co-producer Mel Bergman and Larry Spiegel also produced Death Game (1977), and Spiegel directed Evil Town (1977) and Survival Run (1979).

C

 

© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

IMDB —  Composer Filmography

 

Amazon Search Links:

Amazon.ca Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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