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'Phobias' Review: A horror anthology that's afraid of anthology formats

In 'Phobias,' patients at an unknown facility are forced to relive their worst traumas so an evil doctor can harvest their fear juice.

Experimentation in 'Phobias.'
(Image: © Vertical Entertainment)

Our Verdict

'Phobias' lacks the narrative strength to withstand multiple segments about fear that lack fear themselves, sometimes feeling like a homework assignment that misunderstands the prompt.

For

  • ⚡ Fun horror homages.
  • ⚡ Big vocabulary (learn something).
  • ⚡ "Ephebiphobia."

Against

  • ⚡ Choice segments don't seem to be about fear?
  • ⚡ Mixed-bag results.
  • ⚡ Never wants to be a horror anthology.

An anthology like Phobias, oddly enough, plays like a self-hating horror collection. In instances like The ABCs Of Death or Field Guide To Evil, varied directorial visions play like chapters meant to offer opposing, even clashing styles. In Phobias, the idea of characters reliving traumas based on spelling-bee fodder blank-a-phobias strives to fake a traditional narrative that screams for singular guidance. The "self-hating" part is an anthology at odds with itself, doing its best to conform despite that not at all being the selected structure of choice. What unfolds is an anxiety-driven science fiction thriller with bite-sized versions of ShockerFrankenstein, and other less successful renditions of familiar genre fables. 

Also, Scarecrow wants his fear toxin returned to Gotham.

In Outpost 37, patients are held against their will by sinister Dr. Wright (Ross Partridge). Typical underground facility atmospheres intimidate prisoners as experiments force torturous flashbacks that cause excretion of a valuable gassy substance. Johnny (Leonardo Nam) is Dr. Wright's newest specimen, who's just been possessed by...the internet? The zappy spirit of artificial intelligence? For whatever reason, Johnny first allows his female bunkmates to all undergo testing as a means of telling their backstories from Sami's (Hana Mae Lee) criminal past to Renee's (Macy Gray) poor managerial habits. One by one, electrocuted until the maniac doctor fills his serum quota—which always happens once the focal character's origin is explored to completion.

Most interestingly, "Ephebiphobia" by Chris von Hoffmann examines an adulterous housewife's fear of youth, ironic since Emma (Lauren Miller Rogen) is a schoolteacher. Hoffman flips the cheating husband arc by starting his segment with a phone call where Emma's husband "works late" for the fourth night in a row, then Emma is the one who sends a booty-call text. Consequences appear in the form of children who're none too pleased about the harlot tempting their father, and a tense home invasion standoff occurs with standout performances from child actors Mackenzie Brooke Smith and Joey Luthman as vengeful, blade-happy assailants. Smith, the mastermind, stern yet unstable as she discusses curb-stomping without batting an eye and playfully describes all the punishment that awaits Emma, stone-faced and sans remorse.

Elsewhere, tinges of supernatural influences complicate a narrative where some segments are grounded by post-traumatic stress (genuine), and others become Wes Craven homages ("Superintelligence, but make it spooky"). Camilla Belle exposes a SWAT officer's fear of weapons in "Hoplophobia," as she's triggered by gun blasts that lead to an emotionally resonant yet expected diner breakdown. Maritte Lee Go's "Vehophobia" tackles the fear of driving, as Sami's bloodsoaked past becomes a lesser-value Christine knockoff that goes all "possessed car" with curious horror influences that don't quite belong. Joe Sill highlights the fears of robotics and A.I. in "Robophobia"—however, main character Johnny isn't instinctively afraid of his cyber-soul companion? Finally, Jess Varley's "Atelophobia" uses the fear of not being good enough as an excuse for Macy Gray to slaughter her screw-up architectural employees.

Phobias becomes this odd mix of short stories where some display actual fear of topics, and others embrace their themes instead of running from them. Some segments tease a possible superhero origin story. Others bury characters under mountains of paralyzing anguish. The idea of "phobias" providing a throughline is unclear, even messy at times, and conflicts with its anthological intentions. There are standout moments, whether that's Johnny's electric-bolt friend stalking down a hallway, or Renee's poisoning via Chinese food, or Emma's pleas for sympathy as her actions summon child demons to her doorstep. From an overall digression of horror to lackluster animated flame effects to execution caught between B-movie outlandishness and sincere, heartbreaking admissions of vulnerability, portions also lack horror elements. Ross Partridge ties it all together as a labcoat bastard, but even his egotistical nemesis isn't granted enough screen-time for proper narrative catharsis despite being the wrap-around's regular voice.

Phobias should be fear incarnate but instead splices together horror snacks that sometimes don't even care to understand the assignment (perceptively). "Ephebiphobia" is the clear winner for me, while the rest weigh their moral dilemmas with ranging success rates and provide varying definitions of "fear." Audiences should understand each segment's titular phobia via storytelling without using a dictionary, and yet "Atelophobia" could just as quickly be about the fear of physical imperfections or fear of one's appearance ("imperfections" is murky given the setup). The best horror anthologies own their grab-bag format, but Phobias falters by hoping you won't realize the obvious—no one is on the same page.

Phobias will be available on VOD March 19th, 2021.