Directed By: Rory Abel
Starring: Michael Jefferson, Emma Dubery, Sarah Schoofs, Andrew Ruth, Peter Gregus
By David Mayne
Indie horror is something of a hobby of mine. No, I don’t make indie horror flicks, but I love watching them…ALL of them. In the vast, and usually over-bloody underbelly of indie horror, we are oftentimes subject to tractor-loads of complete bullshit with terrible acting, terrible lines, and terrible gore. I’m not saying that indie horror is a dangerous road to go down as an aspiring filmmaker, it’s just that we, the viewers, are a very jaded bunch…having been to the proverbial “puppet show” and seen the strings, many, many times. Something new and original is hard to come by these days, or at least it seems like it. In a genre now inundated with found-footage nonsense at every turn, the chance to watch a good ‘ol fashioned scary movie, shot with actors that weren’t filming themselves losing their shit while running around an abandoned penitentiary seemed like a treat! Don’t get me wrong, found footage has its place, but watching a movie, ANY movie in the horror genre that bravely steps away from that is a breath of fresh air. In director Rory Abel’s debut feature-film, Phobia, we get a seriously trippy hay ride through an ever-devolving pumpkin patch of madness, with plenty of haunted house WTF to be had all the way through. Just in time for Halloween, no less!
Jonathan MacKinlay (Jefferson) suffers from extreme agoraphobia which developed after his wife, Jane (Schoofs), was killed in a car crash. Dealing with heavy doses of panic, anxiety, and what I perceived to be “survivor’s guilt”, Jonathan spends his days and nights locked inside of his home, shades drawn and doors bolted…a self-imposed prison of the body and mind. Only a few people are allowed in to Jonathan’s isolated world, his best friend, Taylor (Ruth), who often brings Johnathan junk food, movies, and some sort of prescription medication, and Dr. Edmonson (Gregus), Jonathan’s psychologist. But it’s not all boys only in this tree house of terror. Bree (Dubery), a sort of courier who brings Jonathan groceries and other essentials as-needed has started to stop by, most likely an effort on Taylor’s part to bring Jonathan out of his corner a little bit. As Jonathan’s phobias worsen and he begins to hallucinate to the point of seeing terrifying things in his home, the lines between real and batshit crazy start to become indistinguishable.
Abel’s Phobia is a taut thriller for most of its 84-minute running time. Minus a few hit-and-miss moments, Phobia usually succeeds in taking us on a dark and increasingly foreboding journey into Jonathan’s broken psyche as he tries to keep himself together day by day despite a depressing and anxiety ridden existence. I loved the feel of the movie, even though I felt it never really decided on if it wanted to be a haunted house flick or a character drama, either way coming together well enough to move the story forward. Michael Jefferson did very well playing the tortured Jonathan. A few times here and there I wished there would have been a retake to allow a better flow of dialogue between characters, as some back-and-forth lines came off a tad contrived. That said, I also understand that time is money and re-takes are expensive, especially for an indie-project such as Phobia. Either way, nothing “broke” the film in this regard, and credit to Michael Jefferson for offering a very worthy performance overall.
99% of Phobia takes place indoors, case-in-point being Jonathan’s home (formerly his parent’s). Keeping the shutters and drapes closed, Jonathan lives in a perpetually nocturnal reality, and the film’s camera work really conveys the dark hallways, long shadows, and general feeling of isolation well. I like films that hide things just out of view, where one might have to squint at the screen thinking there might be something there, but never being quite sure. Phobia’s lighting and set design put you inside this house, and at times you feel like you are right there with Jonathan. By the time you do get an outside view, and a very brief one at that, the daylight and city street almost seem like an alien planet after you’ve spent so much time cooped up in the goddamn dark. I even squinted a little with Jonathan as the warm sun lit up the screen for a few moments of warm daylight.
One particular scene stuck out that I would like to mention. After spending a night with Bree, Jonathan wakes up the next morning to see his dead wife, Jane, laying in bed next to him (in place of Bree?). Thinking that this is real, Jonathan has a moment where he tells Jane that he just had a really bad dream. They embrace and Jane offers to cook breakfast for the both of them. This single scene really worked to finally show the audience the pain that Jonathan is in and the sadness that rules his life. We see the love he feels for Jane, and even though we as viewers know that he is just imagining her, we can all imagine waking up in a similar situation and wanting so badly for that other person to really be there.
Despite a few hit and miss scenes of dialogue, Phobia succeeds by putting us in the same house as a man slowly losing his mind. Phobia is tense, it’s engaging, and at times it creeped me the hell out. Jefferson is right where he needs to be as Jonathan, a ticking time-bomb of crazysauce; Schoofs- the beautifully blood-soaked memory of guilt and remorse; and Dubery & Ruth, well-meaning friends caught in the middle of a really terrific shit-storm without an umbrella.
A good first feature outing for director Rory Abel. We look forward to more!
You Might Like This Movie If You Liked: Dragonfly, The Grudge, The Woman In Black, The Shining, The Amityville Horror