Going in completely blind when it comes to watching a horror drama like Hypochondriac (2022) can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the film dives into some particularly dark themes pertaining to mental health that can trigger personal traumas (or unearth uncomfortable, possibly stifled memories). On the other, the way in which Addison Heimann weaves a nightmarish narrative with childhood trauma at the center is simply electrifying to behold, as the film melds serious commentary with fantastical dark humor with great mastery — which culminates into an experience that is nothing short of a transformative fever dream.
The words “based on a real breakdown” greets viewers as Hypochondriac opens, contextualizing the film’s events in a highly personal manner: the events in the film are based on Heimann’s personal history and his own experiences with dwindling mental health. This is more than a self-portrait — Hypochondriac aims to capture authenticity while informing viewers about the stark alienation that accompanies mental illnesses, the disorientation and sheer terror that is birthed in the process, and how society reacts to these very real experiences in the most offhanded, cruel ways.
Hypochondriac opens with a 12-year-old child waking up from sleep after he hears the sound of broken glass. His mother (Marlene Forte), who suffers from paranoid delusions, subsequently tries to strangle him as she believes that her kid is in “collusion” with his father. Fast-forward eighteen years, this child, Will (Zach Villa) grows up to be a potter, who spends his days creating art while dealing with his shallow, influencer boss (Madeline Zima) and progressively moving towards a fulfilling life with boyfriend Luke (Devon Graye). At first glance, Will seems to have overcome his deep-rooted childhood trauma, having moved on with his life, focusing on things that bring him joy. However, this precarious balance is disrupted when he starts receiving packages from his mother.
What ensues is a gradual, terrifying descent into a spiral, leading to a breakdown that completely uproots Will’s sense of self. The manifestation of Will’s trauma, or his inner demons, if you will, is in the form of a man in a wolf suit — a pretty neat, effective callback to the man in the rabbit costume in Donnie Darko. While the entirety of Hypochondriac is a string of standout moments, cinematographer Dustin Supencheck and editor Mike Hugo turn Will’s personal hells into pure nightmare fuel, utilizing standard horror framing techniques in unconventional ways. One moment, the wolf figure stares at us with glowing, beady eyes in the dark, the next, it is scuttling rapidly towards us, and Will, who is understandably horrified by the experience.
The most authentic part of Hypochondriac is the humor infused with deeply unsettling moments. This is an extremely tricky tonal tightrope to balance, running the risk of taking away weight or agency from serious subject matters — however, Heimann knows how far he can go without giving into incredulity, and stops at the right moment, following it up with equal measures of nightmare fuel. What Will experiences is extremely harrowing, right from the physical manifestations of his trauma to the constant fear of doubting one’s reality.
How can Will tell apart a genuine incident from a visual/auditory hallucination? Is it even possible to make that distinction when no one around is ready or equipped to get you the help you need? And is the help offered enough to completely erase one’s demons? There are no easy answers, and Hypochondriac does not rely on cinematic suspension of disbelief or happily-ever-afters to reach a conclusion at the end. It resorts to the unsettling, uncomfortable nature of how life actually works, and that is true horror.
The LGBTQ+ aspects of the film are as authentic as it gets — Luke and Will share a loving relationship that is soon fractured when the latter starts harboring distrust towards the former. Part of him wishes to open up, feel safe, and be seen, but that is obviously easier said than done. Even the people who love us and have the best intentions can be mired in ignorance and prejudice, which can play out in subtle ways that end up harming than healing.
Then, of course, there are the insensitive, consciously ignorant, self-centered folks who treat mental health as if it’s something that can be willed away, like Will’s father who is the cruelest person in the film, denying Will the help he so desperately needs. Unfortunately, society is dominated by people who are like Will’s father, the only difference being they are not so forthcoming about their cruelty, and instead hide it behind performative acts of kindness and genuine acts of toxic positivity.
Coming to performances, Hypochondriac would be impossible without Zach Villa. Every emotion displayed by that man is deeply evocative — Villa oscillates from genuine happiness to scathing sarcasm to sheer dread to helpless despair, and every mood, every utterance, and expression is sheer brilliance. Forte is incredibly convincing as a woman torn apart by mental illness and every other cast member carries out their respective roles remarkably well. Circling back to Villa, his Will is a truly heartrending portrait of someone undergoing an intense breakdown, one that forces them to question their reality, who and what they stand for, their morals, and their limits — the picture is not pretty and it is not meant to be.
Hypochondriac is a must-watch. A queer-centered horror experience that is unforgettable, true-to-life, yet intensely cinematic in ways that cannot be articulated. However, be warned: the film contains strong suicidal imagery and heavy themes about trauma, mental health, and dissociation, which could be potentially triggering.