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 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: uber-writer / director hack Gary Sherman (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 10 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, extreme 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, of 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 said ‘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 cast, but with little character material to work, the film is populated by 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 her raw figure can’t save a deadly dull thriller clearly 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 visual irony: a macho-man 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 the actor eventually moved into directing, stepping away from acting for nearly 17 years until 2001.
Phobia is neither well shot (odd, considering it was nominated for a Genie Award), nor well edited (it’s in fact the polar opposite of Huston’s sharp MacKintosh Man), and the editors didn’t seem to care when visual details revealed Phobia’s downtown Toronto locations. Street signage for TTC subway stairwells are everywhere, and a ride in a crowded train is filled with local ads. André Gagnon’s score is rarely dramatic, and his schmaltzy, string-heavy love theme for Ross and Jenny is frankly insipid.
Then there’s Ross’ preferred sport. During his first interrogation with the detectives, his athletic activities are questioned (‘Isn’t it odd a man from California plays hockey?’), but not to clarify his love of the game, but rather support their assessment that Ross is just an American oddball who prefers living in a gloomy ‘northern’ city instead of sunny Beverly Hills.
Although released internationally, within Canada, Phobia remains unavailable on DVD. In addition to a grubby VHS transfer via Paramount, the film is available from Amazon.com as a proprietary download.
Huston would still go on to make the wretched Annie (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.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan