Review: ‘Phobias’ (2021), starring Leonardo Nam, Martina García, Hana Mae Lee, Lauren Miller Rogen, Macy Gray and Ross Partridge

June 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Leonardo Nam and Martina García in “Phobias” (Photo by Vertical Entertainment)

“Phobias” (2021)

Directed by Camilla Belle, Maritte Lee Go, Chris von Hoffmann, Joe Sill and Jess Varley

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the horror anthology movie “Phobias” features a predominantly white cast characters (with some Asians, Latinos and African American) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Five people with five different phobias are held captive by a mad scientist who does experiments on them, with the goal to create an invention that will make their phobias come to life.

Culture Audience: “Phobias” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching low-budget horror flicks that are plagued by substandard screenwriting, mediocre-to-bad acting and very derivative scare gimmicks.

Lauren Miller Rogen and Mackenzie Brooke Smith in “Phobias” (Photo by Vertical

The ambitious concept of the horror flick “Phobias” is so terribly mishandled that the end result is a movie that relies on boring and over-used clichés. The movie’s tone and acting are uneven. The screenwriting is sloppy. “Phobias” has an anthology format, with five different stories by five different directors, all clumsily tied together with a common theme: Five different people with five different phobias are kidnapped by a mad scientist who experiments on his victims so that he can create an invention that will manifest their phobias. The anthology is told in six chapters: “Robophobia,” “Outpost 37,” “Vehophobia,” “Ephebiaphobia,” “Hoplophobia” and “Atelophobia.”

“Robophobia” (written and directed Joe Sill) is the first story in the anthology, and it’s the one that’s filmed the best—although that’s not saying much because nothing in this movie rises above the level of predictable and mediocre. Robophobia is the fear of robots, drones, artificial intelligence and any robot-like machine. Set in Los Angeles, “Robophobia” focuses on a lonely bachelor named Johnny (played by Leonardo Nam), who lives in a small, cluttered dingy apartment with his wheelchair-bound, widowed father Jung-Soo (played by Steve Park), who wears an oxygen tube for his breathing problems.

The movie doesn’t go into details about what Johnny does for a living, but he’s a computer nerd and he’s financially struggling. Johnny doesn’t have a social life either, since there’s no indication that he has any friends. One night, after buying some computer supplies that he can barely pay for at an independently owned electronics store, Johnny (who is minding his own business) is bullied by about three or four random thugs on the street.

The leader of this group is a racist scumbag named Dirk (played by Micah Hauptman), who threatens Johnny by saying, “Look at me again at me the way you did inside of there [the store], and I’ll knock your fucking lights out, China boy.” Johnny replies, “I’m Korean.” Dirk snarls back, “Same fucking thing to me.” Johnny avoids getting into a fight by quickly riding off on his bike, but Dirk and his goons catch up to Johnny and beat him up.

At home, Johnny doesn’t tell his father how he’s gotten the injuries, and he refuses to get medical treatment or file a police report. Not long after getting assaulted, Johnny starts getting mysterious text messages on his computer from a someone or something that seems to know everything about Johnny’s life, including what he’s doing at that exact moment. The mystery messenger knows facts, such as Johnny has a sick father, what Johnny is currently wearing, and how much money is in Johnny’s bank account.

The mystery messenger asks if Johnny wants a friend. Johnny is intrigued but also paranoid. It isn’t long before the mystery messenger starts speaking to Johnny in an eerie computer voice on Johnny computer and on his phone. The voice says to Johnny about Johnny’s unhappy life: “I can help, but I need your help.” Johnny asks, “To do what?” The voice replies, “To stop bad things. I want to be part of your world, the real world, to see what you see.”

Johnny soon finds out what this mysterious force behind the voice is capable of doing. A neighbor named Mr. Romero (played by Gerardo de Pablos), who lives on the same floor, has been very abusive to his wife. Johnny has witnessed some of this abuse. And then one night, Johnny hears a major ruckus and screaming coming from the Romeros’ apartment. Johnny sees that Mr. Romero has been burned to death, with his terrified wife (played by Katia Gomez) wailing over his charred body. It’s implied that Mr. Romero was set on fire, but not by his wife.

Viewers can easily predict what happens next. One night, while out on the street, Johnny is cornered again by Dirk and his gang of bullies. This time, Johnny is emboldened by his “friend” with the computer voice, which has told Johnny that Dirk’s father abused Dirk when Dirk was a child. Johnny figures out that this past abuse is the reason why Dirk has become a violent bully, and Johnny says that to Dirk’s face.

Dirk’s reaction confirms that what Johnny said is true. At first, Dirk is shocked that Johnny knows this personal information, and then Dirk gets very angry. Just as he’s about to beat up Johnny, something bizarre happens: An electrical entity seems to appear, and Dirk bursts into flames. Dirk’s fellow thugs run away in fear. Johnny (and this movie’s viewers) know that what caused this spontaneous combustion is the same force that’s uses the computer voice to talk to Johnny.

Although this mystery force has killed the “bad people” in Johnny’s orbit, the camaraderie between Johnny and this mystery force doesn’t last long. The mystery force tells Johnny that Johnny is torturing his sick father by letting him live instead of letting him die. Johnny vehemently disagrees and gets alarmed when the mystery force says that it wants to take the father.

What follows is a somewhat ludicrous chase scene in the apartment, where Johnny and his father try to get away from the mystery force, which has now manifested itself as a giant, shapeless electrical energy. After Johnny begs for mercy, the mystery forces says that it will let Johnny and his father live if Johnny follows this order: “Find me another.”

The movie abruptly shifts to the next chapter titled “Outpost 37” (written and directed by Jess Varley), which shows that Johnny and four other people have been kidnapped and are being held captive by a crazy scientist named Dr. Wright (played by Ross Partridge), who has made Johnny his most recent victim. Dr. Wright calls this prison Outpost 37, and the five people are in a section called Block 10, which looks like a combination of a dungeon, a psychiatric ward and a scientific lab.

Dr. Wright tells a terrified Johnny why and he the other “patients” have been kidnapped: Dr. Wright wants to target receptors in the brain to create a homemade cocktail that would allow Dr. Wright to extract fear into an easily controlled gas. The doctor wants to sell this gas as a neurological weapon to make him very rich.

Dr. Wright then introduces Johnny to the other four patients in the room, who are all women: defiant Sami, meek Emma, confused Alma and wacky Renee, who each has a different phobia. All of the woman are taken separately into a room where they are strapped to a chair and forced to wear an electrode headset to relive their phobias. And in case anyone has thoughts of escaping, Dr. Wright isn’t afraid to use his cane that can electrocute. The rest of the movie is a story about each of the four women’s phobias and how they got these fears.

“Vehophobia” (directed by Maritte Lee Go and written by Go and Broderick Engelhard) focuses on Sami’s fear of vehicles. Before she was kidnapped by Dr. Wright, Sami (played Hana Mae Lee) was a musician in a rock band, with her boyfriend Harry (played by Ash Stymest) as one of her band mates. A flashback shows that Harry broke up with Sami over something that happened that was Sami’s fault. It’s enough to say that someone died as a result of what Sami did.

Sami didn’t want the breakup to happen. Harry is so angry with her that he yells at her as he walks away, “You fucking used me!” He calls her “twisted” and a “crazy fucking bitch.” The heinous thing that Sami did is shown in the movie. And she is literally haunted by her decision. It’s not a very imaginative story and the scares are minimal.

“Ephebiphobia” (written and directed by Chris von Hoffmann) shows Emma’s fear of teenagers and other young people. Before she was kidnapped, Emma (played by Lauren Miller Rogen) was a seemingly mild-mannered, married teacher of high school students. But one night, three students from her high school commit a home invasion and torture her, for a reason that’s revealed in the movie.

The home invaders are all siblings: Blaire (played by Mackenzie Brooke Smith) is the ringleader, the eldest and most sadistic of the three; Grady (played by Joey Luthman) is a willing accomplice; and Isaac (played by Benjamin Stockham) is a reluctant accomplice and seems the most horrified by the mayhem that ensues. Unfortunately, “Ephebiphobia” is essentially a short film in serious need of more background information on the characters, in order for viewers to understand these characters more. As it stands, it’s just an empty story that shows a violent home invasion with a fairly implausible conclusion.

“Hopiophobia” (written and directed by Camilla Belle) is about Alma’s fear of guns and other firearms the story. Out of all the stories in the movie, this one is the least terrifying and the most predictable. Alma (played by Martina García) is a cop who accidentally commits an act that would be a cop’s worse nightmare. It’s easy to predict what that act is when it’s revelaed by the story’s title that this cop is now afraid of guns. “Hopiophobia” seems more like it belongs in a crime drama, not a horror movie.

“Atelophobia” (written and directed by Varley) depicts Renee’s fear of imperfection and not being good enough. It’s by far the most off-the-wall (and off-putting) of the movie’s six chapters. Renee (played by Macy Gray) works for her father’s architect firm and interviews a job candidate named Bill McNerney (played by Rushi Kota), who exaggerates his credentials.

Renee is a very strange person who wears black gloves. She also makes off-the-cuff remarks that are supposed to be goofy, but don’t fit the tone of the rest of the movie. And she invites Bill and two employees named Lia (played by Alexis Knapp) and Rose (played by Charlotte McKinney) to a dinner party that turns out to be deadly.

Gray, who has an image of being an eccentric artist in real life, is very miscast in the role of Renee, because Gray is not believable as an artichect executive. She’s very awkward in her scenes. In addition to miscasting the role of Renee, the biggest flaw of “Atelophobia” is its muddled message of why Renee now has this fear of imperfection.

“Phobias” makes the same mistake that a lot of other badly made horror movies make: It tries to make viewers think that gory violence is automatically scary. There’s more to terrifying an audience than just showing gruesome deaths. Otherwise, war movies with combat death scenes would be classified as horror movies. A good horror movie gives viewers a chance to get to know the characters and build suspense, rather than showing shallow snippets of the characters’ lives.

None of the acting is outstanding, although Nam and Miller Rogen make attempts to bring realistic depth to their characters. It’s a futile effort because all of the kidnapped characters in this movie have hollow personalities that are overshadowed by the horror that happens to them. Meanwhile, Partridge’s way of depicting Dr. Wright is almost like a parody of a mad scientist.

The concept of “Phobias” was promising, but the execution of that concept was poorly done. The movie somehwat rips off “Saw,” because all of the kidnapped characters were chosen so that they would be punished for the “sins” that they committed, with each punishment related in some way to each sin. The conclusion of “Phobias” is so ho-hum predictable that it makes “Phobias” the type of forgettable horror flick that will leave horror fans underwhelmed.

Vertical Entertainment released “Phobias” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 19, 2021.