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Retro Review: PHOBIA (1980)

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PHOBIA
(Canada - 1980)

Directed by John Huston. Written by Lew Lehman, Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bellwood. Cast: Paul Michael Glaser, Susan Hogan, John Colicos, David Bolt, Patricia Collins, David Eisner, Lisa Langlois, Robert O'Ree, Alexandra Stewart, Neil Vipond, Marian Waldman, Kenneth Welsh, Gwen Thomas. (R, 91 mins)

Barely released to theaters in the fall of 1980, the Canadian tax-shelter thriller PHOBIA is a front-runner for the most bizarre outlier of the legendary John Huston's filmmaking career. The director of THE MALTESE FALCON, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING never turned down a lucrative gig, but like his contemporary Orson Welles, he usually reserved the more shameless cash grabs for his onscreen appearances in other directors' movies. Huston enjoyed a major resurgence as an in-demand character actor after his memorable performance as insidiously evil water magnate Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's 1974 classic CHINATOWN, but he wasn't very picky with his subsequent acting gigs. Within just a few years, he was starring in things like the Italian JAWS ripoff TENTACLES (1977), Mexican trash auteur Rene Cardona Jr's THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE (1978), Umberto Lenzi's cheap WWII would-be epic THE GREATEST BATTLE (1978), the insane THE VISITOR (1979), and the dismal Joe Lewis martial arts actioner JAGUAR LIVES (1979). Following his acclaimed but little-seen 1979 directing effort WISE BLOOD, Huston, then 74, somehow found himself in Toronto helming PHOBIA, which spent some time in cable rotation in the early '80s but has since fallen into almost total obscurity. It's just been resurrected on Blu-ray in a 4K restoration (!) by Kino Lorber, because physical media is dead.





In his only big-screen lead, STARSKY AND HUTCH's Paul Michael Glaser stars as Dr. Peter Ross, a Los Angeles shrink who's set up shop in Toronto, where he's conducting a potentially revolutionary experimental treatment of irrational fears, using volunteer prison convicts as his subjects. The treatment doesn't appear to be anything beyond planting the patients in front of a large screen where they're forced to watch what looks like a multimedia presentation of live-action images of whatever it that frightens them the most, whether it's snakes, crowds, fear of heights and falling, etc. As one expects to happen in thrillers of this sort, Ross' patients start getting offed one by one, mostly in ways related to their phobias, except for the initial victim (Alexandra Stewart), who's killed in a bomb blast that was meant for Ross. Red herrings abound--there's colleague and former lover Dr. Alice Toland (Patricia Collins), who doesn't seem too pleased that he's taken up with new girlfriend Jenny (Susan Hogan, memorable as the schoolteacher in THE BROOD), or it could be any of the remaining subjects in the program, including Bubba (Robert O'Ree), who has a fear of snakes; Henry (David Bolt), with a fear of falling, unstable nutcase Johnny (David Eisner), and Laura (Lisa Langlois), who has a fear of drowning. Could it even be irate, bellicose cop Barnes (John Colicos), who has little but scornful derision for both Ross and his "experimentees," as he dismissively calls them, or his condescending sidekick/partner Wheeler (Kenneth Welsh)? Who knows? Did John Huston even care?


The pieces are all in place for at least a workmanlike thriller: it's co-scripted by Hammer horror vet Jimmy Sangster, and reworked from an earlier draft by genre greats Ronald Shusett (ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL) and Gary Sherman (RAW MEAT, VICE SQUAD), both of whom would collaborate on Sherman's 1981 cult classic DEAD & BURIED. But Huston doesn't even hide his complete lack of engagement with the material. Granted, they can't all be winners in a career as long as his, but PHOBIA feels like a run-of-the-mill assignment that could've just as easily been made by Harvey Hart (SHOOT), Paul Lynch (PROM NIGHT), George Kaczender (AGENCY), George Mendeluk (STONE COLD DEAD), or any other mercenary director-for-hire who was consistently busy in the Canadian film industry at that time.  There's absolutely nothing here to indicate that the guy who made THE MALTESE FALCON is the one calling the shots. The story plods along with no sense of urgency and little in the way of thrills, chills, or suspense, and the "shocking" reveal at the end lands with more or less a shrug. There's only some brief Langlois nudity and a couple of F-bombs to differentiate PHOBIA from any random made-for-TV movie of the period, and even a mid-film car chase comes off as perfunctory and spectacularly unexciting. The end result is certainly watchable--Glaser is fine in the lead, Colicos is terrific as the asshole detective, and there's a vaguely Pino Donaggio-esque score by Andre Gagnon that makes you wonder what Brian De Palma could've done with the same material--and it's obviously of interest to Huston completists, but the only thing they'll take away from PHOBIA is the nagging question of why he even bothered making it. Huston stayed busy in his final years with 1981's VICTORY, the 1982 musical ANNIE, and he finished big with three acclaimed films in a row with 1984's UNDER THE VOLCANO, 1985's PRIZZI'S HONOR, and his final work, 1987's posthumously-released THE DEAD, a longtime pet project based on James Joyce's novel, but PHOBIA remains his biggest head-scratcher of a directing credit. It's also one that apparently wasn't near and dear to his heart, as according to legend, Huston once walked out of an interview when he was asked about it.


Huston and Glaser on the set of PHOBIA
After PHOBIA tanked at the box office, Glaser continued appearing in TV movies for a few years until he took a two-decade sabbatical from acting to focus on directing. He'd already logged time behind the camera on a few episodes of STARSKY AND HUTCH and his work directing several episodes of MIAMI VICE led to his 1986 Michael Mann-produced feature directing debut BAND OF THE HAND. He followed that with Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1987 satirical sci-fi Stephen King adaptation THE RUNNING MAN, but as a director, Glaser is best known for the 1992 figure-skating romance THE CUTTING EDGE, which was a minor hit in theaters but found an even bigger audience on video and cable and remains a sentimental favorite for its fans today. In recent years, the now-76-year-old Glaser has acted and directed on TV occasionally and appeared at fan conventions with David Soul, the Hutch to his Starsky (both had cameos in the 2004 Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson big screen STARSKY AND HUTCH). For a long time post-PHOBIA, Glaser was known less for his Hollywood career and more for the unimaginable tragedy that befell his family when his wife Elizabeth contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in 1981 while giving birth to their daughter Ariel. She was unaware of it for several years, and didn't find out until 1985 that she had passed the virus on to both Ariel (via breastfeeding) and the couple's second child Jake, who was born in 1984. Seven-year-old Ariel succumbed to AIDS in 1988 and Elizabeth, who delivered a memorable speech on the AIDS epidemic at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, died in 1994. Glaser never contracted the virus, while his son Jake is now 35 and has lived with HIV since he was born. Father and son have remained active in promoting HIV and AIDS awareness through the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.



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