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Phobia
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by Jack Sommersby

"John Huston's Worst"
1 stars

A box-office bomb, it barely played in American theaters and is the best reason to take up needlepoint as an alternative hobby.

The irredeemably rotten Canadian psychological thriller Phobia is so inept that it’s hard to believe it’s been directed by none other than John Huston, whose illustrious career consists of The African Queen and The Maltese Falcon and Prizzi’s Honor and other commendable efforts. But from the press reports, Huston has been in financial arrears for decades, so it’s not all that surprising that he chose this pathetic screenplay for monetary rather than artistic reasons. Granted, through his illustrious career no one could ever accuse Huston of having displayed a distinctive style, but he has provided professional craftsmanship and some slyness and wit on more than a few occasions, which makes his acceptance of this dreadfully written exercise in mind-numbing claptrap all the more depressing. The story premise, as has been brainstormed by Gary A. Sherman (Dead & Buried) and Ronald Shusett (Alien), and developed out by three writers (two of whom making their debuts), could’ve maybe resulted in something nastily enjoyable, but the dire development of it and the execution by Huston so lackluster that the movie seems in a constant fugue state -- nothing builds through narrative and structure, with this considerable malady further compounded by an atrociously drab visual schema that can’t possibly elevate the material to even a style-over-substance aesthetic level. In what was surely a desperate casting decision, that just-average television actor Paul Michael Glaser, one of the title halves of the popular crime series Starsky and Hutch, stars as Toronto psychiatrist Peter Ross, whose highly-controversial experimental treatment consists of subjecting five prison inmates to face their deepest phobias not abstractly but directly: terrified of snakes, heights, crowds of people, small spaces, and deep water, they’re first shown video images of these on a huge video monitor and then actually placed smack-dab in the middle of them. The city’s psychiatric review board is concerned of this unorthodox practice, but Ross manages to convince them he can get a faster recovery rate than with standardized ways; besides, he argues, his patients will not only be cured but bereft of the violent tendencies brought on by their phobias and subsequently released from prison, so it’s all for the good of society. Yet right when this treatment is producing some encouraging results, the patients start being killed off one by one by an unseen assailant utilizing their very same fears against them. Is the murderer one of them? Is Ross in danger, too, or should he himself be considered a suspect? Unfortunately, the audience, starved of so much as an iota of entertainment value, is unlikely to care.

Released just a couple of months after Brian De Palma’s psychiatry-and-murder tale Dressed to Kill, which had a ludicrous script but luxuriously stylish directing, Phobia possesses so many blatant flaws that you can practically see the chalk marks the moviemakers aren’t hitting. De Palma’s thriller was riddled with numerous logic loopholes, but at least the canny camerawork and seductive editing rhythms helped glide over some of these, whereas with Phobia, which lacks both tautness and imagination, you’re left having to take everything at face value, and with not one well-directed scene to its discredit you can’t even respond to it on the most undemanding of levels. As a whodunit it’s inadequate in that the supporting characters are so ill-defined that we can’t take them seriously as logical suspects; and as a whydunit it’s just as negligible in that when we’re finally given the underlying motive by the culprit, it’s such a half-baked explanation that it wouldn’t pass muster even with a community college’s Psych 101 students. Almost every weakness in Phobia should have been spotted by the people in charge from a few zip codes away -- it’s a movie that seems untouched by human hands, as if it were a rush job off an assembly line bereft of any semblances of sound judgment. Obviously John Huston signed on to this calamity as a director-for-hire, but does this mean he should be excused from laying down on the job this soporifically? It’s not that he’s acting the hack, because hacks aren’t this direly indifferent to the material they’ve been handed; there’s a chasm between what the movie requires and what Huston has delivered. It’s the very definition of “phoned-in.” And because Huston is too high-minded to give pulp its due, the murders themselves are bereft of the outrageousness called for of this genre that De Palma would’ve nailed (particularly a nude-bathtub bit). And matters aren’t helped by Glaser, who had some genuine appeal as Starsky but is rather diminutive as this supposedly brilliant doctor -- he manages to project all the intellectualism of a toll-booth attendant, and has all the vivacity of a week-old meatloaf. (It’s one of these understated performances that has to be superb to be brought off, and it’s far from that.) Phobia is a classic case of missed opportunities, and you find yourself constantly disinterested in that you wouldn’t think possible given its semi-promising story line because it hasn’t been thought through and realized cinematically. You neither get anything out of it while watching nor take anything with you after leaving the theatre. It’s stagnant and inexpressive, like a ninety-minute-long Tupperware convention with thirty-watt-bulb lighting.

Prognosis: Skip it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25433&reviewer=327
originally posted: 01/12/15 12:17:16
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  09-Sep-1980 (R)

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