Coming into a film titled HYPOCHONDRIAC, the viewer can expect a movie that uses a fairly familiar premise by exploring the ambiguous portrayal of mental illness. Within the movie, the story makes it unclear if the supernatural haunts our main character or if the visions actually manifest in his brain. The protagonist Will, played by Zach Villa (AHS: 1984) plays an adorable and loving man but quickly switches to a mentally traumatized individual as he keeps seeing and hearing things but tells no one. Instead, like many with mental issues, he keeps his trauma secret, which makes him appear as a monster to other people. Often in film and literature, when disability becomes the primary plot piece, the story must eventually either find a way to ignore, cure, or kill the sick person. And in Addison Heimann’s directorial debut, HYPOCHONDRIAC creates an accurate visual and emotional exploration of psychological illness and will leave the viewer desperate to find the resolution to Will’s mental trauma.
Will used to have a happy and normal enough childhood and did typical boy activities like dressing up like a wolf and fearing his mother would strangle him in his sleep. He learned to live with the unpredictability of his home life, but one afternoon he came home to a bloody mess in the kitchen and now a motherless household. 18 years later, a now-grown Will works for a shitty boss at a high-end pottery boutique, but he does not let that stop him from being a loving friend and an adorable boyfriend. However, his idyllic life soon becomes disrupted with calls and strange packages from his mother after 10 years of zero communication.
Will ignores voicemails and boxes of empty DVD cases sent by his mother, and he tries going about his day. However, dizzy spells start happening and he becomes increasingly haunted by his past and bombarded by messages from his mom warning him to dump his boyfriend, Luke. Aside from the cutesy playfulness provided by Villa, director Heimann also mixes in a bit of body horror and jump scares as we get introduced to Will’s imaginary friend and how stranger and stranger things begin happening to our lead character’s body. Images of his old wolf costume and echoing voices plague Will’s mind, and the trauma experienced as a child begins physically manifesting in his arms. Will’s stress from his mental breakdown can no longer stay hidden as he assumes the worse about his health. He knows he must deal with his emotional and mental suffering, but his happy disposition and need for fun distract him from addressing the nightmarish chaos from his past slowly creeping back into his life.
Eventually, the need to know becomes unbearable for Will as he starts to wonder if he has ALS or MS or if all the symptoms come from his diseased brain. He views his mother as damaged beyond repair and fears his life will take the same course. As Will attempts to address his decreasing grasp on reality, he turns to the medical system which allows the film to also make a subtle commentary on the inefficient care provided to people with mental illnesses, and even more so, the lack of LGBTQ-friendly mental health professionals. Starting with googling diagnosis and leading to an ever-rotating cast of doctors (each with different tests and prescriptions) who all blame Will’s ailments on stress. The fear of a diagnosis prevents Will from coming forward, but also the mental health field does not have a long history of showing understanding towards people of the LGBTQ community. While mental health problems remain a serious issue, the profession’s approach to gay or trans patients remains even more damaging. Will cannot open up to his father because of the anti-gay sentiments he fears will happen, and most likely he encountered untrained or even harmful medical professionals in the past. All leading to delayed treatment in Will’s current state of distress.
Very similar to Daniel Isn’t Real, Creep, and Donnie Darko, Will cannot escape the dark passenger (appearing as a wolf) who lurks in the shadows of reality and his psyche. In the history of madness, werewolves represent a cure or at least a hope for a cure. The hunting of witches and diagnosis of lycanthropy existed at the same time, and while a witch can never be ‘normal’, a werewolf can be cured. The creature sometimes appears as the fun costume from Will’s youth, but other times it takes on a far more sinister appearance as it manifests the mental illness prowling on the periphery of Will’s entire existence. Also, the predatory nature associated with wolves portrays Will as a victim being hunted by a hereditary illness. And just when the movie becomes pretty heavy, the director throws in a bit of silliness (in the form of a Ghost homage) to disrupt the serious mood. The change in tone might seem jarring, but the up and down moods represent the bipolar diagnosis that has chased Will his entire life.
The unsureness of the reality and the back and forth between madness and reaching for a cure, makes the film seem longer than its 96 minutes, but not in a bad way. The audience will become lost in the surreal depiction of mental illness and the very physical and emotional struggle with a dissociative mind. HYPOCHONDRIAC takes an emotionally honest approach to the struggles many face when biologically predisposed to bipolar disorder or any other kind of mental abnormality.
Combining queer horror with disability trauma, Heimann creates a memorable movie that cannot be ignored, cured, or killed in HYPOCHONDRIAC.
HYPOCHONDRIAC had its World Premiere at the 2022 SXSW festival and will release through XYZ Films on April 8, 2022.
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