Friday, June 8, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - John Huston's PHOBIA

Some movies are forgotten for a very good reason. Case in point: John Huston's PHOBIA.

It's never fun to watch a great director lose sight of their talents, but there's also that car wreck aspect to watching the worst films of great directors, that whole "What went wrong?" element that gravitates you towards them. I've been a John Huston fan ever since I was a little kid, dating back to a Sunday afternoon viewing of THE AFRICAN QUEEN that somehow kept me hooked, and then on to VICTORY and ANNIE (fuck you, I still like them both) and then eventually onto the true classics. Huston, it must be acknowledged, made a few clunkers, even by his own admission. After all, this is the man who suggested that directors "make one for them [the studios] and one for yourself", and when you consider that PHOBIA came right after WISE BLOOD, which he shot independently, I suppose it starts to make sense. I don't know how that explains why his follow-up films were VICTORY or ANNIE, but then again, I'm not John Huston (oh, how I wish I were sometimes), but I suspect he saw the film as a commercial project that he could do quickly and then move on to something closer to his heart. Even though it didn't work out that way (the film didn't get much of a release), I suppose that when he was finally sitting on the set of UNDER THE VOLCANO he might have had himself a drink and looked back the experience of making this film and felt it was all worth it. That's probably not anywhere remotely near the truth, but what the hell, it's a nice thought, isn't it?

I'd long wanted to see PHOBIA for both the Huston connection and because I felt it had a good hook for a thriller, being about a psychiatrist (Paul Michael Glaser) experimenting on a somewhat radical treatment for dealing with phobias who finds his patients getting murdered one by one through their phobias. Sure, it's a little cliché, but it could work with the right director and isn't Huston usually the right director for most anything? Well, it becomes pretty obvious early on that Huston isn't interested in experimenting or having any fun with the thriller format, because PHOBIA is, surprisingly, flatly directed. Aside from a good extended car chase and one or two scenes of the treatment used to help the patients confront their phobias, nothing about this is out of the routine manner these pictures can sometimes fall into. On top of this, the script (which includes contributions from Gary Sherman, Ronald Schusett, and Hammer Films regular Jimmy Sangster, with some uncredited assist from Gladys Hill, Huston's co-writer on THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING) is likewise uninspired, a pretty much by-the-number affair that could have easily passed as a made-for-TV movie back in the day. It follows the whole murder mystery procedural with no inspiration or passion for its premise. After all, I'd expect the director of FREUD to make a film set in the psychiatric community (even a mainstream thriller) a bit more psychologically involved. But in the end it's just another lifeless whodunit, and while I can remember who did the dunning, I can't for the life of me remember why, and I only saw this thing for the first time about 3 months ago or so. That should tell you something.

PHOBIA gives off this vibe of a troubled production (as only a troubled production can), my suspicions especially aroused by seeing TRUCK TURNER/THE ACCUSED director Jonathan Kaplan's name listed as Associate Producer in the credits. This is the kind of toss-off credit that goes to directors who are either tossed off films or take them over and I don't really know which is which on this one. I'm not going to speculate either way, but this certainly would explain a few things if either one is true. The sole bright spot of PHOBIA is a funny and sometimes clever performance by John Colicos as the chief detective on the case; Colicos was an old hand at this sort of thing and obviously relished working for a director like Huston and gave it his best. The best scene in the film is his, when interrogates a suspect in the murders and you get that, yeah, he's the smartest guy in the room. You wish that everyone else stepped up, but outside of him there isn't that much to go with, with Glaser a pretty unconvincing psychiatrist and also a fairly stiff lead (but for the record, I really, really enjoyed BAND OF THE HAND). So after finally seeing PHOBIA on a nearly 20 year-old VHS tape, I can understand why this film occupies such a low place on the Huston film totem pole. But it takes a completist like me to actually seek this thing out, watch it and write it up for you good people. If you find a hidden gem or a misunderstood masterpiece, then it's worth your time, but with a flick like PHOBIA, I kind of have the feeling like John Huston, God rest his soul, owes me a beer. And I don't even drink.

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