Though it manages a consistently ugly, gloomy, grimy look, the anthology film Phobias doesn’t gel as a braided narrative. It opens with a seemingly self-contained story (Joe Sill’s Robophobia), about Johnny (Leonardo Nam), a Korean guy having a bad time in a rotten neighbourhood who is befriended by the internet (or an electrical being or an externalisation of psychic power) but sees the zapping creature go from harming bad people to deciding he’d be better off without his terminally ill Dad. Then, in a lurch, Johnny is suddenly trussed up in a van en route to the frame story, Jess Varley’s Outpost 37, where patronising evil scientist Dr Wright (Ross Partridge) is using cattleprods and restraints on the protagonists of all the stores – and eventually they band together like a superhero team with different skillsets (though only Johnny has superpowers) to escape into an unknown future.
It’s a problem that the other stories don’t take place in a consistent universe, and the protagonists aren’t even alike in the way, say, the inmates of Asylum or the travellers of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors are … we get a psychic prodigy (or best friend of an electrical being, like a dark, gritty reboot of DC’s Golden Age asshole with a magic pal, Johnny Thunder), a crook (Hana Mae Lee) haunted by a car after she’s done a bad thing with it in Maritte Go’s supernatural tale ‘Vehophobia’, a teacher (Lauren Miller Rogen) tormented by a sociopath teen (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) in Chris von Hoffman’s straight suspenser ‘Ephebiphobia’, a SWAT trooper (Martina Garcia) who has PTSD after shooting a kid on a raid in Camilla Belle’s ‘Hoplophobia’ (fear of guns – though, seriously, what idiot isn’t afraid of guns?) and an eccentric architect (Macy Gray in a committedly weird performance) who self-Frankensteins by sewing on patches harvested from her young and pretty staff in Varley’s ‘Atelophobia’ (fear of not being perfect).
The first and last stories are like sketches for features, with strong ideas that are rushed through – anthology films can’t get away with ‘huh?’ endings for individual segments – while ‘Ephibiphobia’ and ‘Hoplophobia’ (character/crime pieces) are tighter, tauter and more effective, even if the latter dodges the BLM issue (this has an admirably diverse cast, though they all get slathered in gloom). I didn’t like this much while I was watching it, but the morning after I’m seeing more merit in individual aspects – even the stories that didn’t work for me have good things in. Camilla Belle was the final girl in the When a Stranger Calls remake, Chris von Hoffmann made Monster Party (which I liked). One plus – when I read the blurb, I assumed this would play out like Phobia, The Color of Night or any of several other films in which patients are tormented by their specific neuroses … but this doesn’t pick on any of the obvious, overworked phobias (heights, rats, confined spaces, etc) that have been done many times before.