Review: 'Hypochondriac' Offers Healthy Scares

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 5, 2022

Zach Villa in 'Hypochondriac'
Zach Villa in 'Hypochondriac'  (Source:XYZ Films)

Writer-director Addison Heimann plunges into full-on paranoid thriller with a twist of body horror in the gay-themed "Hypochondriac."

Monsters haunt the edges of Will's (Zach Villa) life, starting with is parents: When he was a boy, his mother (Marlene Forte) came close to strangling him to death in a bout of paranoid madness. His disengaged father (Chris Doubek) had her sent away, but did little to reassure his traumatized son.

Eighteen years later, Will has grown up to be a talented young potter, and the closest thing to a monster in his life is Blossom (Madeline Zima), the self-absorbed owner of the studio where he works. Blossom is exploitative and a pain in the neck, but harmless; a more troubling reminder of fragility are the panic attacks that co-worked Sasha (Yumarie Morales) suffers, which Will is skilled at defusing.

Otherwise, things are going with Will's Ife; he's doing what he loves, and he's got a caring boyfriend of eight months, Like (Devon Graye), to go home to. Things change, though, when Will's mother reaches out after almost two decades, sending him boxes of papers and rambling incoherent messages warning him not to trust Luke. Where is she? How does she know about Luike? Is she stalking him, and will more violence follow?

That's when Will's symptoms begin: An episode of sudden weakness at work leads to an accident in which he takes a fall, landing on his arms, which begin to tingle and hurt. Recurrent bouts of dizziness plague Will after his tumble, as do visions of a human shape with lupine features. Is Will experiencing the early stages of the same mental illness his mother suffered? Is the wolf-creature a manifestation of psychosis? A messenger? A demon? Will's search for answers leads him to recurring details (a strange poster advertising champagne that hangs in doctors' offices; different medical providers offering him the same advice word for word) that might point to a deeper meanings... or might simply be artifacts of his decaying sense of reality.

Heimann crafts a tidy little thriller that works all the better for including a realistic same-sex relationship, though one can't help wishing he'd done more with the real-life horrors around the health disparities encountered by too many LGBTQ+ people at the hands of a too-often biased health care system, and while the film strives not to reduce Will to another gay victim it's rather too bad that Heimann didn't work in a suggestion of how it affects LGBTQ+ youth to experience social, religious and legal attacks at a vulnerable age. As it is, the movie would be essentially the same if Will had been written as a straight man with a concerned girlfriend.

What works well, though, is the film's unfolding layers of suspense, as well as the choice to follow the lead of the 2001 film "Donnie Darko" and allow the monster Will keeps seeing to look like (as Will puts it) "a man in a wolf costume," a depiction that creates a creepy sense of doubt. Is it a man in a suit? Or is it something entirely more sinister and surreal? Man, mask, or monster, the wolf seems to represent something hideous and inevitable, and its appearances conjure a sense of dread and disconnect from comforting realities.

"Hypochondriac" doesn't rise to the level of psychological horror achieved by Adrian Lyne's 1990 movie "Jacob's Ladder" (another example of a tough genre), but it does a great job of sending chills down the spine and raising goosebumps, partly because lead actor Zach Villa is so warmly adorable that the script's icily disconcerting touches feel that much clammier and Heimann's direction is clever enough not to need elaborate effects or CGI beasties to create its shocks and jolts. This is Heimann's directorial debut and his first feature as a screenwriter, and it's enough to get you excited to see what he might come up with next.

"Hypochondriac is in theaters July 29 and On Demand and DVD August 5.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.