Wednesday, August 11, 2010

PHOBIA (1980) - the greatest fear is supposed to be fear itself, but that sounds suspiciously like a circular argument

Here is a still of Lisa Langlois from Class of 1984. She does an about face in Phobia, playing a deeply repressed psychiatry patient who can't seem to be able to kick off her heels, spray paint her head pink, throw on a dog collar, cover her face in punk glitter, and actually enjoy life.

Boy, the human mind is sure loaded with snafus, bugaboos, and general psychiatric foolishness. One specific mental issue I have, among many others, is the inability to discern Starsky from Hutch. Oh sure, I could hit up IMDB, but that shit is CHEATING. Generally, when either David Soul or Paul Michael Glaser appears in a film or TV show, I refer to them as “Starsky or Hutch”. Like “I have a VHS copy of Phobia, and it stars ‘Starsky or Hutch’ as a psychiatrist, and his patients are being murdered, one by one. Who is responsible, I ask myself? The suspense is killing me!”. Also, I talk to myself.

Well, for the sake of clarity, I looked it up, and Starsky is indeed the star of the film. Why someone would decide to cast a bored T.V. cop with a Jew fro as a seemingly brilliant psychiatrist, I have no answer for (maybe it’s all part of the mystery). He’s one of those doctors that employs “experimental methods” and “has his detractors”, just like every single psychiatrist character that ever popped up in a horror thriller. He’s in charge of a curious cast of loonies, as you might expect, all given reprieve from various crimes if they agree to serve as guinea pigs for Starsky’s revolutionary fruitcake cures.

The film opens with several examples of his method, which involves sticking a patient in a dark room, surrounded by a large movie screen showing a film that represents their specific fear (like a fear of snakes, fear of crowds, etc.). Starsky then asks them to confront the images that are enveloping them, rather than curl up in a corner and start crying like a girly wimp. My favorite one is where a guy who suffers from a fear of heights is forced to watch a cute home movie of a young child falling off a skyscraper. It turns out to be the kid’s doll that actually plummets to its doom (conveniently, they are dressed exactly the same), smashing onto the pavement below. Either way, I always enjoy it in a film when someone throws a dummy of a child off of a building. Truffaut understood the giddy joy of this, and used it as the basis for a similar bit of slapstick in Small Change. Anyway, the patient is prodded to sympathize with this plummeting dummy, in order to help conquer his fear of heights. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see why someone shouldn’t be afraid of falling off a skyscraper. Then again, what the shit do I know about the human mind.

Starsky also tells a female patient suffering from agoraphobia to get on a crowded subway and meet up with him afterwards at his house. She packs herself into this human sardine box, repeatedly telling herself not to panic. Of course, this constant interior badgering causes her to freak out, fleeing the subway for Starsky’s place, where she can mellow down and wait for the doctor to come home and “assist” her. As this is a Canadian film, he is off playing hockey somewhere. After all, if you’re gonna pad a Canadian movie, pad it with gratuitous hockey scenes, or at least have the hero sit in a bar and pound Mooseheads. Either way, that Starsky guy is one versatile dude. Well, she gets bored sitting around, and notices the drawer containing her files, and is naturally quite curious as to what the doctor's notes have to say about her. Per Murphy’s law, a bomb explodes when she opens the cabinet, effectively ending her agoraphobia through explosive brute force.

Well, a belligerent meathead detective (the meat in question is pork-based, no doubt) believes that the bomb was meant for Starsky, and begins his “ham”-fisted investigation. Against Starsky’s wishes, he interrogates his patients, asking why they would want to rig a complex trigger bomb in the file cabinet of the man that is trying to heal them. His methods include assault, belittling insults, and a whole lot of screaming, investigating exactly jack and shit in the process. Instead, he just hopes to force a confession through brute baconry. Unfortunately, this destroys any potential detective mystery angle to the film, as there is no real examination of evidence like you might expect. Instead, we get a lunkheaded thrashing of constitutional rights by some pig who can't be bothered to just do his fucking job.

The bald guy with a mustache and a fear of heights (in that order) attempts to flee after being harassed and resultingly fingered by the detective. This leads to a lame car chase, which ends in him driving a car into a deep ditch, amusingly accompanied by some truly mismatched foley that sounds like someone just pressed the “car crash sound” button. He eventually climbs some scaffolding, and Starsky tries to talk him down, but he decides to fall to his doom instead. I guess it nicely fits into the phobia death gimmick, but why would a guy with a fear of heights climb a high scaffolding and jump off? If he wanted to die, he could’ve just punched the detective, and the ruthless oinker would have gladly beaten him to death with whatever was handy, and chalked it up to suicide in the official report.

Of course, the pork patrol thinks the case is effectively closed, that the mustache dude killed himself out of guilt for his earlier murder. This sordid and deadly turn of events inspires Starsky to register no more than smug boredom throughout. Maybe he’s just one of those cool cucumber types. Of course, the film unfolds exactly as you would expect, with several more patients getting killed according to their phobias, with a “twist” ending that manages the mean feat of simultaneously being forced, undercutting the story, and being obvious as hell. Seriously, if you can’t figure this one out, you probably need to head back to movie college, or maybe just give it up entirely.

The obvious comparison here is with the same year’s Schizoid, which stars Klaus Kinski in nearly the same story. Needless to say, Klaus is more fun to watch than the comatose Starsky, although neither of them is viable as a psychiatrist. If I was going to pick a headshrinker to treat me, I doubt I would choose Klaus Kinski, possibly the craziest man that ever lived (all apologies to Charles Manson). However, Schizoid is trash, and everybody involved knew it (except Klaus, of course, who was off on planet Kinski), so the psychiatry aspect to the story is mostly irrelevant, and merely a setup for a murder plot.

Unlike Schizoid, Phobia doesn’t really use the plot as a lurid mystery, nor present the murder sequences as exciting set pieces. For example, the scene with Lisa Langlois (Canadian exploitation goddess, of Class of 1984 fame), where she is forced to watch a gang rape to get over her frigidity (me thinks the method is a tad blunt). Of course, she freaks out, and has to soak in a bathtub for awhile to relax. While I’m certainly appreciative of whatever bit of gratuitous Lisa Langlois nudity I can get, this scene is an exploitation opportunity that is completely wasted. She could’ve been stalked before she got into the tub, and maybe chased out of it, running around the clinic nude while a mad slasher chases after her with a pair of scissors (the modus operandi of the killer from Schizoid). Instead, the killer just quickly pops in and sticks her head underneath the water, drowning her. I don’t know how this murder relates to the phobia gimmick, but I wasn’t exactly paying close attention.

It should come as a great surprise that the film was directed by none other than John Huston. However, this has all the earmarks of a paycheck cashing, a slummed phone-in, if you will. Although he was in the twilight of his career (and life, for that matter), that's no excuse, as he managed to create two of his best films during this period (Wiseblood and The Dead). While the script could’ve been the basis of a crass and mindless slasher-esque suspenser, Huston seems to treat
it as a dialogue about the idea of confronting fears directly, and the relationship between psychiatrist and patient. Unfortunately, this "dialogue" is built upon this shitty thriller script foundation. Huston apparently didn’t notice that the plot was merely a gimmick for a crude whodunit, or just had no desire to try and muster up a thriller. In other words, the exposition scenes that a film like Schizoid tries to zip through, knowing that they are really just there to enable a psycho-thriller plot, and not to provide real insight into Freudian psychology (and most people watching the film wouldn't give a shit anyway), become the backbone of Phobia. This results in an interminable slog, as we wait around for the obvious "shock" ending, while the characters mostly stand around and discuss this lame "mystery" they find themselves embroiled in.

The one inspired aspect to the film are the therapy sessions with the projected manifestations of the patient's phobias. This nicely conveys the central concept of the film in purely cinematic terms. The patient's fears manifest physically, engulfing them in the process, creating an external representation the internal psychoses that dominate them. This allows the audience to easily empathize with the patients, and also mirrors a viewer watching a horror/thriller film, as they too confront their fears and anxieties in a dark room surrounded by images.

There is also a lot of run time dedicated to Starsky’s Canadian girlfriend, played by the lovely Susan Hogan, known mainly to me from her role as the concerned teacher in David Cronenberg’s The Brood. She is the emotional center of the film, dishing out the pathos that Starsky can’t be bothered with. However, she is pretty much useless to the story (until the ending, anyway). Well, at least a radiant talent like her finally got the opportunity to shine, what with a substantial role in a big piece of shit that almost no one has ever seen.

P.S. This piece was written as part of the John Huston blogathon over at the Icebox Movies blog. Check it out here


  1. Just wanted to stop by and tell you how much I love your blog! Love the pics of Diane Franklin in Terror Vision! Can't wait to read more from you.

  2. @Morgan
    Thanks! Yes, Terror Vision is one my favorite films, and EVERYBODY loves Diane :)

  3. Hey Tom, so sorry I haven't been able to look at your contributions to the Huston blogathon until now. A combination of school starting up again and my participation in other blogathons that have started up since then prevented me from giving as much immediate time to each new Huston blogathon contribution as I would have liked.

    But I just want to say, I love this piece. Even though Phobia sounds rather unremarkable I still can't deny my curiosity at seeing Huston directing a slasher flick a la De Palma/Cronenberg. Although you do note here that the Hustonian dialogue about fears, phobias that seems to have been inspired by Huston's earlier work on Freud are more Hustonian and interesting than the actual slayings. Regardless, I hope this movie sees the light of DVD... thanks so much for writing about a Huston title very few people even know about.

  4. @Adam
    Yeah, it's seems like Huston was interested in the psychological angle, and not interested in the genre aspects of the material like a DePalma would be. I haven't seen Freud, but I will keep an eye out for it. Thanks!