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By Brad Slager | May 9, 2003

I need to start by saying openly that I admit I may be missing something entirely when it comes to the mass of low-grade, zero-budgeted horror films available. From the standpoint of a movie reviewer these titles are the cinematic equivalent of pork rinds asking to be favorably compared to foie gras. Bypassing the fact that I just equated myself to the New York Times restaurant critic, what we have to deal with is the consistent lack of quality inhabiting these films. Like that deep-fried porcine entrail snack food they can labeled one of two ways: Either “Terrible”, or “Inducing digestive intestinal bleeding”.

However I have seen evidence that there are legions of enthusiasts who speak glowingly of these films. I initially accept that there is a divergence in individual tastes, but how do I reconcile with those who lavish admiration on the technical merits of a movie that by all accounts has no technique to speak of, let alone any merits? A case study of this variance is “Phobias”, from the splatter-house Sub Rosa Studios. One source I found was raving about numerous aspects on this production, including the sound quality. This puzzled me since many scenes had the acoustics of a deserted bus depot, with dialogue getting lost and sounding as if the voices had to bounce off of two walls and a piece of furniture before reaching a boom mike wrapped with a carpet remnant.

The aural inferiority was matched by the shot on video visuals that seem to be the hallmark of Sub Rosa. We have come to expect this along with the sanguinary subject matter, but I do not see where we have to accept the premise that there is quality afoot. This rouses a feeling on par with that brought on by a used car salesman telling me that a station wagon is in fact a first-generation sports utility vehicle. The sad truth about the production is that there is some creativity trying to fight its way onscreen, but the dismal visuals prevent any acceptance by a viewer.

“Phobias” is in actuality two separate features. The opener is “When Shadows Lie Darkest” and this is where some effort seems apparent. The focus is on an emotionally disturbed man named Frank who has a distinctly unhelpful psychiatrist. Frank’s problem is that he has some rather stark nightmares and cannot distinguish between his sleeping and waking conditions. This is a problem, given his tendency to murder people in the dream state. Director Robert J. Massett uses visual and audio tricks to convey the psychosis and blur the line between what is happening and what is merely nocturnal playacting–often doing so effectively. But these slight gains are undone by the budget and worse, the plot.

Extending Frank’s emotional morass is his promiscuous wife who comes to him for money and little else. Again his therapist–whose office is in a tunnel, based on the echo–is so useless that Frank feels it is normal that he does not mind her adultery because he will kill the men during his sleep. And then of course wake up, the cuckold anew. When these two try to determine if he actually killed the wife’s lover Frank declares that his exterminator must have done it. His reasoning: everyone would expect Frank to be the one to kill the lover, so it is the perfect crime. Seemingly having a patsy is more likely to cause a murder than having an actual motive.

The second feature is “Blackout” and centers on the dissolution of a white trash marriage, and by dissolution I mean violent eviscerating of the husband courtesy of the wife’s hemming scissors. Sarah is our protagonist in this second story and she finds herself hitched to a slovenly drunkard with a short fuse. He is the type of man who has no job but probably does have a collection of binders holding the transcripts to all the Jerry Springer episodes while at the same time cursing Maury Povich—“That man’s too wordy!!” Sarah dreads being married to a husband who talks to the television more than her, so she seeks a way out.

One night, while clipping coupons, her husband is in full cavil overdrive when the power goes out and she hits his mute button, so to speak. Covered in blood she makes a cup of Folgers and sits serenely, her life now ahead of her.

At the police station she has to endure the good-cop bi-polar-cop routine but they fail to get any answers from the wife, so naturally they let their primary suspect go home. In the parking lot Sarah gets propositioned by an industrious lad named Derek who swoops down on any single women exiting the precinct. Despite this obvious dysfunction Sarah takes his number.

We get to follow this Derek home and there we see that he prefers to light his abode with a combination of green and red light bulbs. Massett then forces us to watch an interminable sequence where Derek has issues with the door to his pantry. He repeatedly closes it and a moment later finds it is open again. After duplicating this process numerous times Massett goes that extra step and grinds the movie to a halt by giving us a long stretch of Derek staring at the door.

Meanwhile Sarah’s roommate bluntly informs her that she has to clear out of their apartment by the end of the night, so Sarah does the logical thing and asks the stranger who accosted her if she can move in with him. She apparently has no apprehensiveness moving in with a degenerate who is prone to puerile stunts and lights his apartment like the set of a cable-access monster-movie program. Then things get even more anomalistic for the finale, but it pains me to discuss things any further. Suffice that it is unconventional and unlikely. And unentertaining.

One source stated that “Phobias” is “a horrific movie”, and I completely agree. I suspect however that we were using that term in two different contexts.

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