By RACHEL REEVES
In the new film HYPOCHONDRIAC, humor and horror come together to explore one of the most labyrinthine and pervasive issues out there—mental illness. While accurately representing and portraying mental health issues on-screen can be a tricky business, the film’s incredibly personal origin story provides a solid, deftly managed foundation. Inspired by writer and director Addison Heimann’s own mental breakdown, HYPOCHONDIRAC is a hauntingly humorous look at a terrifyingly complex topic.
Recently making its World Premiere in the Midnighters section of this year’s SXSW Film Festival, HYPOCHONDRIAC revolves around a young, gay, high-end pottery specialist named Will. Portrayed by Zach Villa (AHS: 1984), Will’s struggles with mental health trace back to his mother (Marlene Forte) and her own unique issues. After one particularly violent episode in his youth, Will’s father has her committed to a psychiatric hospital. Here their relationship, for all intents and purposes, ceases to exist. While capably managing his own mental health for decades, things begin to change for Will after his mom starts to reach out unsolicited.
Initially brushing off her emotionally disruptive attempts to communicate with him, Will uses humor as a way to cope. Though striving to keep his growing stress secret from his boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye) and co-workers, things come to a head when Will injures himself on the job. Before too long, Will becomes unable to use his arms; he begins to suffer dizzy spells, nausea, and he forgets to eat. He also begins to hallucinate and starts to see a wolf reminiscent of Frank the Bunny in Donnie Darko around every corner. No longer able to run from his demons (although he desperately tries), Will is finally forced to confront them in a sometimes hilarious, sometimes genuinely horrifying fashion.
Ripped from Heimann’s own personal headlines, HYPOCHONDRIAC’s potency resides in its authenticity. Candidly discussing the fluctuating spectrum on which mental illness operates, the story becomes as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. There are simply some situations in life so absurd and chaotic that there’s nothing one can do but laugh at them and HYPOCHONDRIAC nails that sentiment perfectly. By the same token, it never shies away from the potentially devastating effects that mental illness can have on those who suffer from it and the people around them. Here, not only is Will dealing with his own mental illness, his childhood trauma and fear of mirroring his mother only amplify his anxieties. Although it’s a delicate mix of subjects to address, HYPOCHONDRIAC ultimately gains strength in its bold and unwavering approach.
Further empowering the film are the incredible performances by Zach Villa and Devon Graye. As a duo, the chemistry between Villa and Graye is palpable. Quickly selling themselves as a real couple in love, they easily endear themselves and raise the emotional stakes of the film. Lovingly tender one moment and painfully uncomfortable the next, the emotional turmoil they exhibit as they navigate Will’s spiraling mental state resonates with remarkable earnestness. But extra special kudos belong to Villa who not only crushes the comedic bits of HYPOCHONDRIAC but the horror elements as well. Truly traveling to some dark and difficult places, Villa’s performance both dominates and delivers.
At the end of the day, HYPOCHONDRIAC perfectly exemplifies the power and range that horror possesses. Combining solid bits of humor, genuine heart, terrifying imagery, honest representation, and all too relatable issues, Heimann and crew have bestowed a rare and beautiful gift upon the world. By leaning into the darkness and fearlessly exploring its murky depths, Will’s journey transcends the semi-fictional realm that contains him. For many, HYPOCHONDRIAC will not be an easy watch—but it will be a cathartic one.