Many films before this one have taken an approach to the manifestation of trauma, but none have done it with the precision and horror of Hypochondriac. Writer/director Addison Heimann, a queer filmmaker presenting an explicitly queer story, draws from an intensely personal experience: his own mental breakdown. Hypochondriac epitomizes the feeling of losing control of one’s own sanity. Styled frequently as an almost kaleidoscopic peak behind the curtain, body horror is on the menu in this cerebral and haunting SXSW entry.
American Horror Story 1984’s villainous Richard Ramirez actor, Zach Villa, this time plays introverted potter, Will. To call Will’s childhood disturbed would be massively underselling things. When he was only twelve, Will’s mother tried to kill him—18 years later, and she resurfaces just as Will’s life seems to be coming together nicely. Will has been dating Luke (Devon Graye) for eight months now, and works for a gallery in “the business of high end pottery.” As Will is getting into the stage of opening up fully with Luke, Mom (Marlene Forte) calls unexpectedly, leaving an ominous voicemail about trust. Next, a box of empty DVDs shows up with another warning from Will’s Mom. Her voice is soon inescapable, and Will cannot help but listen to the eerie voicemails she leaves on his cell.
Similar to one of my all-time favorite movies, 2001’s Donnie Darko, in Hypochondriac, a strange costume-wearing man appears in visions to the lead character, seeming to beckon him towards doom. Like Frank the Bunny, this character appears destructive but necessary, only this time is donned in a wolf costume rather than a bunny. The manifestation of this wolf is crucial in trying to crack Will’s character. Seeing Will physically harm himself and his joints locking up is one thing, but a demented take on Ghost’s pottery scene with The Wolf was enough to make this viewer shudder in delight.
A warped social commentary is sprinkled throughout, as each time Will seeks help, there is always a different doctor and different tests to be run. At least they can all agree not to Google symptoms. Where does one draw the line in terms of treatment? How can one escape the evil when it lurks inside of them? With abuse, trauma, and twists on the menu, the trippy and atmospheric Hypochondriac holds the audience invested in Will’s stable life before it pulls out the rug from underneath him. Addison Heimann’s sharp script works best at diving headfirst into Will’s psyche. Drawing on painful realities must have been majorly cathartic for Heimann, and channeling it through a genre lens serves to make its staying power extra potent. A haunting and powerful final shot closes out the movie with an open-ended hopefulness that made me want to instantly rewatch it.
Queer horror is sweltering in popularity over recent years thanks to growing acceptance and mainstream successes, but we still have a long way to go before the needle has moved far enough to celebrate the progress. Hypochondriac is another big win for the SXSW Film Festival, whose own proudly queer Swan Song was my favorite festival movie of 2021. Whether it emulates Donnie Darko or exists in a space specific to its own machinations, Hypochondriac remains a memorable, chilling little indie flick.
Hypochondriac debuted at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.