Mental illness is a monster in Addison Heimann’s supernatural thriller Hypochondriac. The debut feature from the director follows a young adult as he comes to terms with the long-lasting damage of his mother’s bipolar disorder while also navigating the terrifying reality that he too may be suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness. Either that or he’s haunted by an invisible monster that tells him all sorts of terrible things about himself and the people around him.
Hypochondriac celebrated its East Coast Premiere at the 2022 Boston Underground Film Festival as part of the festival narrative slate. It also recently celebrated its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival where it was met with fairly positive reviews, mostly due to its representation of gay characters and how it handles mental illness. It’s the kind of indie horror film that you see a lot of film festivals but can fall through the cracks between big marquee premieres and star-backed indie darlings. And given that this yearly deluge of indie offerings at film festivals can be hard to keep track of, I’d like to take a slightly different approach to this review.
“….puts the horrors of mental illness on center stage.”
It’s never lost on me that film festival reviews are weird. When something like James Wan’s Malignant or Ti West’s X hits the theatre, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of whether or not you’re going to like it. You know who made it, you know who’s in it, and any review you read is either to help keep you hyped, or remind you that you don’t have to spend a handful of cash on a night out. It’s a lot harder to figure out whether or not to get invested in a movie you had no prior knowledge of and might not be able to see for months. So with that all in mind, I’m going to try and keep things simple. I’m just gonna tell you who’s in it, what it’s about, and (most importantly) why you might like it. Who knows, I might even find time to give you my honest opinion.
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Here’s who made it: As I’ve mentioned above, Hypochondriac is the debut feature from Addison Heimann, who is directing from his own screenplay. The hallucination-laden thriller stars Zach Villa (American Horror Story) as the lead, who is in nearly every frame of the movie. This is very much his story and we are with him through thick and thin, observing his life warts and all. Rounding out the cast are Devon Graye (I Blame Society), Madeline Zima (Twin Peaks: The Return), Yumarie Morales (The Shrink Next Door), with appearances from Marlene Forte (Knives Out), Chris Doubek (The Dark and The Wicked), Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds).
Here’s what it’s about: Zach Villa plays Will, a twenty-something potter in the early stages of what could become his first serious long-term relationship. His boss is a lot but he seems to really enjoy what he does and he’s got a great relationship. Despite the 9-5 grind, he’s living a happy, promising life. After receiving an out-of-blue message from his sick mother, Will’s life begins to spiral out of control. He loses control of his hands after a workplace injury, he begins seeing a man with a wolf mask in his apartment, and his creeping paranoia drives him to push his boyfriend further and further away. Just as he was starting to carve out a space for himself in the world Will is forced to confront the dark truths that threaten the lives of himself and everyone he loves.
Here’s why you might like it: Hypochondriac puts the horrors of mental illness on center stage. It doesn’t shy away from the ugly truths so many people live with, drawing inspiration from Heimann’s own personal breakdown. In a director’s statement, he noted that his goal with the film was “to capture visually what it felt like to have a mental breakdown“. This is by no means a document of what every person suffers through but it is a cinematic glimpse into a scary world that can at times feel like a horror movie. It also features a terrific performance from Zach Villa who is as energetic and funny as he is exhausted and frightened. Will, like a real-life person, is more than just a one-dimensional character and Villa brings all facets of his personality to life as though the story were about him specifically.
“…features a terrific performance from Zach Villa who is as energetic and funny as he is exhausted and frightened.”
Here’s my honest opinion: Mental illness as a fountain of horror is an approach movies have been taking for decades. Until we understood it better, it seemed there was only one way to present it, and it generally resulted in a death or criminal insanity. Today, we take mental illness much more seriously but we too are caught up in one-track mind on how to portray it on screen. As a result, horror movies like Hypochondriac can feel a bit like after-school specials.
Yes, the idea (and reality) of living with mental illness is scary but ideas are not stories. What you do with that idea, and how you mine it for situations to create horror is an essential ingredient in crafting a story. Hypochondriac is an honest depiction of the realities of mental illness, straight from the source. Its steadfast dedication to creating a safe space to discuss this issue makes it feel like a fictional documentary but, sadly, not a very scary horror movie.
“Hypochondriac can feel a bit like [an] after-school special…”
Addison Heimann’s supernatural thriller Hypochondriac celebrated its East Coast Premiere at the 2022 Boston Underground Film Festival. Be sure to let us know is you’re looking forward to seeing Hypochondriac or what you thought of the film if you were in attendance at BUFF 2022 over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.