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October 15, 2019



John Huston - 1980
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I'll let the reader decide if this just coincidence, so bear with me here: Phobia star Paul Michael Glaser was known for the television series, Starsky and Hutch, as Detective David Starksy. Goofing off of the similar sounding name, Saturday Night Live had a spoof, "Sartresky and Hutch", with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as the crime buster. Sartre was hired by John Huston to write a screenplay that eventually was not used, when Huston was planning to make his film about psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The actor who portrayed Starsky is seen here as a psychiatrist who uses questionable methods to cure his patients.

Phobia has the dubious distinction of being considered the worst film in John Huston's lengthy filmography. The film's greatest interest is the idiosyncratic ways in which it fits in thematically with Huston's other work. That Huston signed on to direct Phobia was possibly due to grabbing a fully financed studio film after the uncertainties in getting Wise Blood produced. In addition, Huston had explored psychoanalysis both in his documentary, Let There be Light as well as Freud. There are also Huston's films which can generally be grouped together as "thrillers", with The List of Adrian Messenger being somewhat similar with the killer murdering a specific group of victims who knew each other.

Just as Sigmund Freud doggedly tries to discover the roots of Cecily's hysteria, alarming his peers with what are seen as unorthodox methods, Dr. Peter Ross tries to cure the phobias of his five patients, all convicted criminals. The five patients and their respective phobias are introduced, each up against a pair of large screens with filmed images of their fears. A man with a fear of heights is shown footage of a young child who appears ready to fall from a very high apartment building balcony, is part of the treatment. There are a series of deaths that directly or indirectly are connected to each patient's phobia. Looking for the killer is Lieutenant Barnes, a cop who suspects everybody. There is a scene of Barnes interrogating a patient that is so sadistic that it made me think of an amplified version of Humphrey Bogart slapping Elisha Cook, Jr., Hollywood's least threatening hit man, in The Maltese Falcon.

One of the other mysteries of Phobia is in regards to the the multiple credited and uncredited writers of the screenplay. The original version was written by Gary Sherman in 1971, prior to his directorial debut, Raw Meat. The two originators of Alien, Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon also had a hand as did Jimmy Sangster, screenplay writer of several classic Hammer horror films. The commentary track by film historians Paul Corupe and Jason Pichonsky suggests that Phobia was intended to be more of a horror film. There are quotes from John Huston that he was making a murder mystery, and that his frequent collaborator, Gladys Hill, also contributed re-writes. The murder set pieces are pointedly never graphic, although they could have been with a different filmmaker. Taken as part of Huston's filmography, the psychological aspects of Phobia play as a distorted revisiting of Freud through the wrong end of a telescope, where symbolic guilt and criminality are manifested literally. One mystery not explained is director Jonathan Kaplan's credit as Associate Producer. Phobia was produced at a time when Kaplan had a short detour making a couple films for broadcast television after the box office failure of Over the Edge. One correction that should be made regarding the commentary track is that Phobia did play in the U.S., but only very briefly, with teaser ads on television.

While several of John Huston's films have gained stature over the years after being dismissed at the time of release, Phobia is never going to be one of those films. To its credit, this is a made in Canada film that doesn't disguise that it was made in Canada - a Yonge Street sign is a reminder of the Toronto location. Aside from some truly terrible hair styles, such as Paul Michael Glaser's full blown Jewfro, the only nod to being culturally relevant is to have a rebellious young man wear a Sex Pistols button. As these things go, it's far less anachronistic than Billy Wilder's Buddy, Buddy from 1981 with the hippie couple and a baby named Elvis, Jr. On the plus side, one of the better set-pieces involves a victim trapped in an elevator. One of my favorite actresses, Alexandra Stewart, is only onscreen briefly in a vivid performance as the patient with Agoraphobia.

Two additional blu-ray supplement are interviews with actresses Susan Hogan and Lisa Langois. Hogan talks about her surprise at being cast as the girlfriend of Dr. Ross, and getting star billing, her career primarily having been in Canadian television. Langlois has a very brief nude scene in Phobia, a point of contention between her and Huston at the time of filming that eventually changed the rules requiring actors to be made aware of scenes requiring nudity prior to filming. The interview is no "metoo" statement as Langlois discusses this with warmth and humor regarding Huston, with Langlois asking Huston if Katherine Hepburn would be willing to do a nude scene. The director's reply, "She would for me."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 15, 2019 07:32 AM