Death Takes a Mental Health Day in Latter-Day John Huston Thriller.
DIRECTED BY JOHN HUSTON/1980
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: OCTOBER 22, 2019/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
A cursory glance at the directorial career of John Huston can yield an odd intrigue. Yes, he helmed some of the most undisputed and revered classics in film history- The Maltese Falcon; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; The Asphalt Jungle; Key Largo; The African Queen, just to name a few. But for almost every one of those, there’s a forgotten also-ran- The List of Adrian Messenger; Sinful Davey; A Walk with Love and Death. Yes, every director has his dogs, but Huston’s list reads as particularly glaring. Perhaps highest ranking of his forgotten/forgettable films is 1980’s Phobia.
Atmospherically, Phobia is late-Carter-era melancholy in a bag. Aesthetically, it feels like an unasked-for cross between a made-for-TV movie (the lead is Starsky & Hutch’s Paul Michael Glaser; the scale is small and blah) and the contemporary work of Antonioni (soft shadows and haze are well utilized). Shoehorned between the comparatively better-known Wise Blood (1979) and Victory (1981), Phobia feels like a Huston directorial career time filler; an afterthought as he waits for the big budget of Annie to roll in. That the same filmmaker made that film and this one in such close chronological proximity is as jarring as anything in Phobia.
At only ninety minutes and small in stature, Phobia was and remains quite easy to overlook. It was widely dismissed at the time, and after the fact, some of those involved didn’t have great things to say about it. Somewhat notoriously, it passed through the hands of eight different screenwriters (five credited, three uncredited- an arbitration party at the Writer’s Guild!), including Dan O’Bannon (Alien) and Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster before lensing in Toronto as a Canadian tax shelter project. Phobia, a merely passable whodunnit thriller, puts forth little to earn its R-rating aside from a very uncomfortable and entirely gratuitous nude scene with actress Lisa Langlois. The battle on her behalf that resulted in the dialing-back of that nude scene is another of the film’s notorious aspects.
In terms of auteur study, however, Phobia demands a closer look. Huston, despite his clout and legacy, was never comfortable in Hollywood. He was as outwardly rugged as he was inwardly intellectual, demonstrating an intuition for the aspects of human dark psychology from the outset. (His debut, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon is stocked with characters as twisted as they are broken). Downward spirals and grim endings are nothing new to the Huston filmography. Troubling psychology is in fact a central reoccurring theme.
Phobia, as its title might imply, centers on the psychological treatment of a small group of neuro-terrified individuals. It’s a radical treatment as conducted by their doctor, as played by Glaser. He contains them in an odd video chamber and, from behind a control panel, forces them to watch footage of their worst fears (falling, snakes, crowds, etc). This being Toronto circa 1980, when Glaser isn’t doing that, he’s playing hockey without a helmet. But then, the murders begin….
In terms of performances, Phobia is what it is. Though Glaser is a long way from Humphrey Bogart as a compelling leading man, the experience of being directed by Huston no doubt informed the TV star on his own path as a film director (of films such as The Running Man and Kazaam).
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ release of Phobia goes above and beyond the label’s typical threshold for bonus features. First up is an audio commentary track by Paul Coupe of Canuxploitation and film historian Jason Pichonsky. It’s a really good commentary, playing out as an informed conversation between the two. Additionally, the label conducted short video interviews with actresses Susan Hogan (for all intents and purposes, the female lead) and Lisa Langlois (who would go on to be quite the scream queen).
When the U.S. Postal Service makes a stamp set commemorating only four great American film directors, Huston is one of them. This film, nor any of the other forgotten titles on his directorial filmography, will alter that earned perception. Just don’t look to Phobia to back up that earning.