The bond between a mother and a son (or any familial relationship) comes with an unsaid agreement. An agreement that says that there’s going to be a sense of love, understanding, and camaraderie. More than the child, the onus is on the parent to respect and uphold that agreement because they’ve decided to bring this person into this world. So, when it’s desecrated because the parent didn’t solve their issues before taking up the responsibility of a human being, it’s usually the kid who bears the brunt of it. Largely because they’ve got their whole life in front of them. Recent movies and shows like “Under the Shadow” (2016), “Hereditary” (2018),” “The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020),” and “The Haunting of Hill House (2018)” have explored this in detail. And “Hypochondriac (2022)” is a brilliant entry into this roster.
Written and directed by Addison Heimann and based on Heimann’s own traumatic experience, “Hypochondriac” opens with a young Will (Ian Inigo) shooting a Halloween video with his mom (Marlene Forte). The narrative then jarringly shifts to Will being “rescued” by his mom from a presence and then attempting to kill him, thinking that he’s in cahoots with said presence. Then there’s an 18-year time-jump, and we see an adult Will (Zach Villa) working as a potter for an influencer with his friend/colleague Sasha (Yumarie Morales). He is in a healthy relationship with his boyfriend, Luke (Devon Graye). And he’s a self-proclaimed expert in dealing with panic attacks. However, out of the blue, Will’s mother re-establishes contact with him. And that sends Will into a downward spiral as he thinks he’s either suffering from a degenerative brain disease or being stalked by a demon in a wolf costume.
One of the most noticeable things about “Hypochondriac” is its visual storytelling. Heimann, along with cinematographer Dustin Supencheck and editor Mike Hugo, turn Will’s devolution into such a subjective experience that you cannot help but feel as discombobulated as Will. The world around Will constantly warps, goes out of focus, and straight-up lies to him. There are moments, all captured in-camera and practically, where it feels like Will is literally trying to escape his mind and his body. And the portrayal is so vivid (yes, massive trigger warnings here because of suicidal imagery) that it gets under your skin and puts you in Will’s shoes. Villa’s performance is undoubtedly a huge factor here, as he absolutely swings for the fences during Will’s fits of outrage. Then he proceeds to break your heart by showing how vulnerable Will is post-outrage.
That said, “Hypochondriac” is funny, though. Even in his director’s statement, Heimann states that comedy is tragedy plus time. He shares his personal experience during the filming where at a certain point, he convinced himself that he was dying too. That is funny in retrospect. Definitely not during the shooting of the film, but in retrospect. And it’s important to keep that notion in mind because, without that, it would seem like the movie is making fun of Will’s predicament. Whereas it’s not the case at all. Heimann is essentially putting himself on-screen and finding levity in the traumatic experience he had. In doing so, although the movie largely relies on Villa’s shoulders, it gives his co-stars a lot of interesting material to work with. Graye’s Luke exudes so much empathy that it’s infectious. Michael Cassidy’s NP Chaz and Peter Mensah’s Dr. Jansen seem effortlessly condescending. And Madeline Zima nails the obnoxious aura of an influencer to a T.
That brings us to the commentary of “Hypochondriac” on trauma, problematic mother-son relationships, the absent father, anxiety, and therapy. As mentioned before, Heimann understands how long-lasting the effects of bad parenting can be. Like Will, we have come up with unscientific coping mechanisms by watching movies and shows or Googling to put up a facade that we’re alright. Like Will, we are forced to do that because our employer will fire us if we take a mental health vacation. And like Will, we are secretly aware that that’s not helping. So, it’s quite satisfying to see an out-and-out horror film say that understanding the fact that you need help is the first step towards healing. Professional therapy isn’t the most affordable thing out there. But there are people like Luke who love you and are willing to be with you. You just need to hold their extended hand. Is that going to solve everything miraculously? Well, according to Heimann, no. Miracles don’t happen. Your demons will always stay with you and you just have to learn how to tame them.
In conclusion, “Hypochondriac” is one of the best horror movies because of the subjective manner in which it tackles such a common human condition. It is both scary and heartbreaking to see Heimann pour his heart out in such a visceral fashion. The movie boasts of some brilliant cinematography and editing. If you are a fan of crossfade editing, this is your jam. Zach Villa deserves all the applause for showcasing such a dynamic range.
Meanwhile, Devon Graye, Marlene Forte, and the rest of the supporting cast should be appreciated for accentuating Villa’s work. Heimann’s film is certainly not for the faint hearted, especially if you’re going through a sensitive time right now. But if you can tolerate triggering imagery and topics, you should definitely check it out.
“Hypochondriac” is a 2022 drama horror film written and directed by Addison Heimann. It was screened at the SXSW Film Festival in 2022.