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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Phobia (Blu-ray)
Phobia (Blu-ray)
Kino // R // October 22, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 30, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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"Something about this smells to high heaven. I sense it. I feel it."

The undervalued Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas amusingly called John Huston's Phobia (1980) "the worst film ever directed by a winner of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award."

Intrigued by this declaration, I decided to check further. Prior to Huston, the award had been presented to directors John Ford, Orson Welles, William Wyler, and Alfred Hitchcock. Among them are, certainly, lesser films, like Hitchcock's Waltzes from Vienna and Huston's earlier The Kremlin Letter. But unless Ford or Wyler directed some truly terrible silent film I've not seen, Thomas's assertion is probably correct. Phobia is positively awful and without question Huston's worst film.

And yet, here it is, on Blu-ray, in a sparkling new 4K transfers packed with extras, no less. No Blu-ray, or even an adequate DVD version, of Huston's The Dead (1987), one of his two or three best films, but Phobia gets near-Criterion treatment.

The movie is a psychological thriller, sometimes misidentified as a horror film. Nothing about is horrifying, nor are there any thrills. Most of its characters are unpleasant and uncharismatic. None of the actors give memorable performances, there are no flashes of imagination by Huston, his cinematographer, or his editor. The movie's premise is rooted in a radical treatment program for people suffering from various phobias (agoraphobia, fear of snakes, etc.) but the science behind it, basically a "sink or swim" approach, is laughable if not dangerously irresponsible. Presented as a whodunnit, the big reveal at the end is no surprise at all.

Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Ross (Paul Michael Glaser) has adopted a radical approach to treating patients suffering varied phobias. For his test cases, all prison volunteers, he projects images Cinerama-style of their worst fears, expensive-looking mini-movies, and in some cases, as with patient Bubba King (Robert O'Ree), who has a crippling fear of snakes, forces them to confront their phobias directly, basically shaming them, in his case goading him into touching a slithering reptile. (Ross practically says, "Don't be a wussy.") Ross admits his inspiration for the program evolved out his own childhood fear of water, but his colleagues, particularly ex-girlfriend Dr. Alice Toland (Patricia Collins), remain skeptical.

Treating an agoraphobe, he instructs a young woman (Alexandra Stewart) to take a subway to his apartment. After suffering a panic attack, she finally arrives at Ross's home, only to be murdered when a bomb planted in a file cabinet explodes. Police Inspector Larry Barnes (John Colicos) believes Ross rather than the woman was targeted for the attack, but Ross laughs off such theories. Soon, however, other phobic patients meet similarly grisly ends.

Filmed in Canada, Phobia cost $5.1 million but, according to Wikipedia, grossed a pathetic $59,167, presumably in the U.S. and Canada. I'd been curious about the picture for many years, as it seemed to play nowhere when it was new, and rarely turned up on commercial television.

And no wonder. Its cockamamie ideas about serious mental health illnesses like agoraphobia are deeply uninformed and generally unsympathetic. Protagonist Ross comes off as cold and impersonal, and Inspector Barnes even worse. His out-of-nowhere third-degree brutality toward one suspect directly results in that innocent character's death, and in retrospect his theories about whodunnit are totally off-base for nearly the entire story, even though the identity of the murderer is pretty obvious to the movie audience almost from the beginning.

The project seems to have been overcooked, with the germ of a potentially interesting thriller rewritten into blandness by too many writers, including Ronald Shusett (Alien), Gary Sherman (Death Line) and Hammer's Jimmy Sangster (Paranoiac) among those with a hand in the story.

By the 1970s Huston drifted between big commercial films, seemingly accepting virtually anything he was offered (The Mackintosh Man, the ridiculous-but-amusing Victory, Annie), to which he brought a workmanlike professionalism but little more, between generally smaller, more personal projects that often resulted in great late-career films (The Man Who Would Be King, Wise Blood, Prizzi's Honor, The Dead). Phobia provided employment but at no point in the film are there signature Hustonian moments. Nothing distinguishes it from the hack work of, say, David Lowell Rich or Michael Winner.

Except for Andree Gagnon's better-than-average musical score and maybe actor O'Ree's performance, a kind of Canadian Sid Haig, there's simply nothing to recommend Phobia at all.

Video & Audio

Bearing original distributor Paramount's logo, Phobia gets a 1.85:1 widescreen presentation from a new 4K master that makes the movie look brand-new. (How many 35mm prints were ever struck, after all. Five?) The mono DTS-HD Master Audio is also above average. Optional English subtitles are provided on this region "A" disc.

Extra Features

Supplements include an audio commentary by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com, and film historian Jason Pichonsky. New video interviews with actresses Susan Hogan (as Ross's current girlfriend) and Lisa Langlois (as one of his patients) highlight their admiration of director Huston, even on a film as rotten as this; they have amusing insights to offer. A trailer rounds out the extras.

Parting Thoughts

Unless, like me, you're determined to see every John Huston movie, no matter how rotten, you can safely Skip It.






Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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