Written by: Matt Patti | March 18th, 2021
Phobias (Camilla Belle/Maritte Lee Go/Joe Sill/Jess Varley/Chris von Hoffmann, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
What is your biggest fear? How did it come to affect you? Was it several different occurrences that led to your frightened feeling towards something? Or was it one singular event that led to your forever dread of a certain thing? In Phobias, an anthology collaboration with several different segments that all follow the same housing of the main plot, five characters’ biggest fears are exposed and explored in detail while they are being held by a sinister doctor who attempts to weaponize their feelings of terror.
Leonardo Nam headlines the cast as Johnny, a loner tech geek who lives at home with his elderly, disabled father. Bullied and threatened often, Johnny longs to be able to defend himself. One night, while on his computer, he receives a mysterious instant message from someone who knows all of Johnny’s personal information. Johnny eventually comes to find that he is speaking with an artificial intelligence (AI) who offers to help solve his problems and stop bad things from happening. Soon, the AI begins to help Johnny stand up to those who have mocked him. However, it eventually goes a bit too far when the AI becomes more and more violent and begins targeting those closest to Johnny. This leads to Johnny’s “robophobia,” or fear of robots and artificial intelligence. Later, Johnny finds himself captured and trapped in a government facility with others who have extreme phobias. The sinister Dr. Wright (Ross Partridge, Stranger Things) has collected these people in the hopes of weaponizing their fear through an advanced machine that turns their terror into a tangible gas.
The film’s biggest draw is the five different background stories of each character’s fear and how it came to be. Although directed by five different directors, each segment feels as if it is directed by the same person, as the stories are cohesive, have a similar quality, and live up to the same standard, which is impressive. The origin of each character’s specific phobia is explored fully in an intriguing, creative way. The film shows how certain moments in people’s lives, or a combination of occurrences, can affect people throughout their whole life. The characters in the film seem real and grounded, aided by exceptional performances by all of the cast. Each person goes through a disturbing, terrifying, or unfortunate traumatic experience that leads to their current state.
The characters are the film’s biggest strength, but it also excels in other areas. The flashback sequences in which we see each character’s past trauma are all quite suspenseful, tension-filled, and compelling to see play out. This is thanks to quality cinematography and effects work and an impressive, chilling score that makes each creepy or disturbing moment even scarier. The filmmakers do a great job fulfilling their visions that all combine to create a focused, effective thriller.
There is one major aspect of this film that does not work as well as the others, however, and that is the government facility with the crazed doctor. Very little of the film is spent in this location, so it’s not a huge drawback, but when the film does focus on this plot point it loses some steam. The idea of taking one’s fear and weaponizing it into a gas is laughable and unbelievable, and the machine that is supposed to do so is cartoonish and not fully explained. The characters have little interaction in this space, unfortunately, but when they do it is clearly the best part of the facility portion of the film. The only other issue I have with the film is that it is very predictable at times. Some small, specific events are easily seen coming before they happen.
Overall, though, I am very impressed with Phobias. I’ve seen some attempts at horror anthology that do not work at all due to inconsistent storytelling, varying quality of the segments, and entirely different visions of different directors. I’m happy to report that the five different segments in Phobias are all equally engaging, masterfully told, and consistent with the overall vision for the film, while also showing the specific skills and attributes of each director at the same time. An improved attempt at the government facility storyline could soar this film even further into the praises of critics, but this critic feels that the overall film is effective and enthralling enough to excuse the shortcomings. This film will make many people realize that even the seemingly silliest of fears can have a sinister, horrifying origin, leading to an understandable, long-lasting phobia.