Shot on videotape with a $250 budget, distributed via Canadian community cable, and supported by local businesses in exchange for free ads during the credits (all of which remain intact), Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiments is a legitimate cult gem. Slotted into MacLean-Hunter's lineup whenever there was airtime to fill, the film garnered a following across Canada over the years since its initial broadcast thanks to heavy airplay, and is now arriving for the very first time on home video as a special edition DVD. It's an extremely entertaining movie, one which blends elements of Star Wars, Predator, and The Terminator (among other things) while still forming a fully distinct personality of its own. Even better, the movie's unique pleasures are a potent reminder (in the age of trash like Sharknado) that true cult brilliance can't be artificially manufactured.
Describing Phobe by describing its plot (an ex-military alien gun-for-hire arrives on Earth hunting a creature known as Phobe, and battles it while trying to protect a random Canadian high school girl) provides a glimmer of the movie's silly insanity, but the joy of Phobe lies in its many idiosyncrasies. The film is a collection of tiny details that probably meant nothing or were even viewed as flaws during the shooting of the movie, but contribute to the overall Phobe experience now that the movie's taken on a life of its own. To be clear, while Phobe contains plenty of wooden performances, awkward dialogue, and limited production value, enjoying the film isn't an ironic experience -- the movie is both funny and fun to watch because its' DIY quirks leap off the screen and pull you into an oddly comforting cinematic bear hug. All movies, good or bad, operate on the same principle if they're made sincerely, which is that they act as an expression of something within the people who poured their time and energy into making it. Phobe is amazing partially because it exists at all, and partially because it's a perfect cultural time capsule of a time, place, and group of people.
Most of the movie rests on the shoulders of John Rubick as the alien gun-for-hire, known as Sergeant Dapp (aka "Greg"), who wears shades (which appear to be made out of opaque tape) to cover his eyes, which glow yellow thanks to Earth's atmosphere (a set of glowing contact lenses), and Tina Doumoulin as Jennifer, a high schooler targeted by The Phobe (Merv Wrighton) because she discovers what Dapp informs her is one of the Phobe's eggs while walking home from school. Rubick's detached swagger and Doumulin's general amenability to whatever Dapp tells her next is a really entertaining combination, and both performers have enough natural personality to make up for their limitations as actors, not to mention the movie is peppered with funny choices that give both characters personality: When Dapp puts his space helmet on as he departs for Earth, he wears his shades underneath, and the movie pauses for nearly a minute so Tina can change into a sweater.
Although it's probably a hack comedy trope at this point to paint Canadians as utterly polite, the bulk of Phobe's greatness comes from what feels like a cultural affability. Tina is never particularly alarmed to learn that there's a deadly space alien chasing her (the first question she asks when Dapp tells her the Phobe is an alien is "Why isn't it on the news?"), nor to the revelation that Dapp is an alien too. Her friend Rob (Lyon Tenbroeck) -- the source of my favorite throwaway detail in the film, an exact duplicate of his plaid shirt in his locker -- seems equally unfazed. At one point during Dapp and Tina's life-or-death escape from the Phobe, they stop in a bar and have a dance until the Phobe pokes his head in the door. Even the movie's climax is very funny in a sort of friendly and pleasant way. There's also -- and I mean this in the nicest possible way, as I live in an area like this -- a charmingly hick-ish quality to the town and its residents. The film's first two victims are two dudes with mullets, one in a glorious Coors Slo-Pitch sweater, and although the movie was made in the mid-'90s, the interior decorating, costume, and overall vibe of the production is that of an area still slowly transitioning out of the late '80s.
Amid the movie's homegrown touches, there are some impressive technical achievements and bits of directorial flair. The big plus are the movie's pyrotechnics, which are used as the Phobe shoots and kills or at least shoots at various characters. Although the movie leans heavily on the effect, demystifying it a little, the characters dodge believable bullet hits, and the Phobe's space grenades convincingly detonate, sending a shower of sparks in the air. Benedikty manages to get a crane shot or two in the film, giving it a very impressive air, utilizes her big sets (namely, Hodgson Steel) very well, and even tries for some ambitious shots, such as the sight of the Phobe egg reflecting off of Tina's glasses. Although this edition of the film has been given some newly revised effects, they're minimal and exist alongside clever forced-perspective shots, a gore makeup application, and a number of laserblasts and explosions. Phobe may not have the resources of a professional film shoot, but the way it all fits together, it's easy to forget you're watching something that is in some ways unpolished, and just get sucked into the adventure.
Severin brings Phobe to DVD via their Intervision label. The DVD cover features pictures of Rubick and the Phobe over a shot of the movie's new and improved visual effects, and the single-disc release comes in a white Amaray case. There is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Phobe was shot on analog videotape (Betamax, if I'm not mistaken), and Benedikty mentions in one of the bonus features that their biggest problem was sound. Taken together, the 1.33:1 full frame video presentation and Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack are both heavily compromised and also the best the movie is ever going to look or sound. Colors are often drab, detail is very low, and the picture is constantly plagued by aliasing, none of which is likely to matter much to any audience hearing about the movie's cult infamy. Sound is muddled and often quiet but generally clear enough that the dialogue is understandable and nothing is really lost. The only minor quibble is the lack of English subtitles, which would have been nice for those moments when certain lines do end up a bit obliterated by the recording process.
The disc kicks off with an audio commentary by writer/director/etc. Erica Benedikty, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com and Peter Kuplowsky of the Laser Blast Film Society. Corupe and Kuplowsky make for good moderators, asking questions of Benedikty about the production, generally allowing for nice substantial little details about the low-budget means used to achieve certain things, trivia behind some of the movie's more inexplicable quirks, and some detail about the thought process that went into the new "special edition" version (more on this at the end of the extras section). The trio manage to keep up a lively banter the entire time, and both hosts have a real affection for the film that shines through in the sweetness of the track.
Video extras kick off with Back in Black (58:02), Erica Benedikty's first film, which she made when trying to get permission from the community cable channel to make Phobe, as a test run to prove she could direct a feature. This is a slightly more meandering but still entertaining companion to Phobe featuring many of the same cast and crew, about a boy who gets sucked into the fantasy world from his comic books. The movie takes a bit longer to get into the thick of it but there's a fun Indiana Jones spoof at the top, and the special effects at the end are pretty spectacular. The running time also includes bloopers built into the movie after the end credits.
This is followed by "The Making of Phobe" (22:07), which reunites Benedikty and several members of the cast and crew, who reminisce on the making of the movie and the hometown fame it's brought them over the years. There is also a Q&A with the cast and crew (14:09) following a screening of the film in Ontario. Both are funny and charming, and both are slightly bittersweet thanks to the absence of John Rubick, who passed away in a car accident in 2003. In both pieces, everyone expresses their regret that Rubick didn't live to see his dream of being a movie star realized, which adds a poignancy to the movie's cult following.
The disc is rounded out by a few odds and ends. The original FX shots from the 1995 broadcast version of Phobe (1:57) are included. Although I'm grateful that the replacements are minimal and generally feel fitting in terms of matching the movie's low-fi aesthetic, it's still kind of weird that anyone bothered at all, and disappointing that the option to play Phobe in its original form wasn't also included. Finally, there's also a reel of outtakes (7:29), and a clip of Gribble Hall performing the Phobe theme (2:48), shown in a picture-in-picture frame next to the title sequence.
So many cult films fail to earn their label. They're often empty exercises in irony that laugh at the filmmaker, not engaging for their entire running time, or worse, a manufactured piece of pandering designed to appeal to people who don't understand why B-movies are cultural artifacts, just that silly things happen in them. Phobe is the real deal: an inspired, memorable, and most of all authentic piece of Canadian DIY goodness. The disc is packed with extras, and the movie looks as good as it ever will. The lack of a completely unaltered presentation is a slight bummer, but the disc is highly recommended.
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