Addison Heimann deals with the ghosts in his past by bringing them to light, inviting scrutiny from whoever chooses to open the Pandora’s box that is Hypochondriac. While few directors probably choose to enter the game with an exposé into their traumatic upbringing and the details of a mental breakdown, Heimann takes on this challenge with aplomb and succeeds in creating a film that is shocking and entertaining by using the lens of horror.
Will’s (Zach Villa) life seems to be headed in a good direction. He enjoys his job as a potter and his relationship with boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye) is committed and loving. But Will begins to experience a concerning mixture of health issues, like dizziness, pain in the limbs, and nausea. Will bravely enters the gauntlet of healthcare options, hoping to gain some clarity on the problem, but all tests come back “normal.” And strangest of all, a person in a wolf costume keeps appearing, and Will wonders if he’s seeing visions.
While Will considers diagnoses from ALS to MS, he fears the worst — that his mother’s history of bipolar disorder and manic depression will be his inheritance. Will has tried to bury the shame and fear he felt when his mother tried to choke him to death one night, but buried secrets always come out one way or another. As his past begins to manifest and bleed into the present, Will has to come to terms with the whole of his story before it consumes him.
Movies about mental health abound these days, but Hypochondriac takes on an intense, haunting appeal because the story originates from personal experience. Heimann, up until now known for his work writing and acting in comedy shorts like Jeff Drives You and Kappa Force, pivots to the lens of horror for his first directorial debut. Palpable terror follows Will’s every move. He has tried to create a life free from the pain of his past through erasure, but the dread lurks inside his being. And once mother (Marlena Forte) decides to reach out, it’s hard to ignore her warnings and he begins to see danger everywhere.
Heimann chooses Zach Villa, best known for his work in American Horror Story, as his surrogate, Will. The role of Will requires Villa to be on screen for most of the movie. Villa delivers an impressive and dynamic performance that helps viewers navigate the rollercoaster of emotions, physical ordeals, and mental states that Will goes through during the 90-minute runtime.
At the beginning of the movie, Will comes across as confident and comfortable in his skin. But as the pain begins to creep into his limbs, his movements become visibly awkward. Heimann drives up the body horror by showing the ways Will tries to test his physical abilities. Will lifts heavy boxes and performs awkward stretches with his arms. These actions paired with the camera angles and creepy music transfer the physical discomfort to the viewer. Any second, I expected something in his body to break and didn’t want to look. But the psychological terror Will experiences is far worse.
Will’s mother begins to leave upsetting phone messages, warning Will that Luke can’t be trusted. Will tries to ignore her warnings, but her words begin to fester and cause doubt. For Will, trust is a commodity. His mother once turned against him, the healthcare system can’t seem to help him, and Luke, the love of his life, begins to look menacing, too. As his paranoia heightens, the creature in the wolf costume shows up. The visual horror in these later chapters use more traditional horror film techniques, like shadows, red filtered lighting, and a psychedelic soundtrack by Robert Allaire. The action and visuals crescendo along with a music towards an ending that will drive the viewer to the brink of sanity.
We, along with Will, no longer know who to trust and just want relief. Can we even trust Will? The unsettling experience offers viewers a window into the headspace of someone with a mental breakdown.
Heimann’s directorial debut is a courageous film that lays bare his own story of mental health and childhood trauma but also invites viewers to find themselves therein with the horror lens and the vicarious storytelling. While not everyone knows what it’s like to suffer a mental breakdown, in this COVID-tainted society, most people now have loved ones with a history of mental illness of some kind. Will’s story is our story. And everyone can relate to the feeling of being at war with your own body and the frustrations of dealing with the American healthcare system. Hypochondriac manages to balance all of these plot points with creativity, wit, and an eventual much needed dash of hope.
If you’d like to learn more about Hypochondriac, check out the interview EoM contributor Lindsey Dunn conducted with writer/director Addison Heimann and actor Zach Villa.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
XYZ Films acquired Hypochondriac and will release it theatrically later in 2022.
SXSW Screening Information:
* Monday March 14th at 9:30p CT @ Alamo Lamar, Alamo Lamar 3
* Tuesday March 15th at 9:00a CT (Online Only)
* Tuesday March 15th at 3:15p CT @ Alamo Lamar D
* Thursday March 17th at 9:45p CT @ Alamo Lamar D
For more information, head to the official SXSW webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.