Keith Adams, “ChromoPHOBIA” (2019)
Based on a short story by B Evenson, this dark horror fiction short focuses on mental illness and its treatment, and unconscious psychological projection. After a patient in a mental hospital commits suicide for unknown reasons, clinical psychiatrist Jennifer Haver (Marjan Neshat) takes on a new patient called Arthur (Patrick Carroll). Arthur says very little and is extremely withdrawn but comes to life if allowed to draw with charcoal on paper, which he does obsessively: he draws technically complex pictures of the same scene over and over. Dr Haver is drawn to the pictures, which always feature Arthur’s attic-like studio, which has a full-length stand-alone mirror in the background. Discovering that Arthur has a fear of using coloured crayons, Dr Haver tries to investigate the source of his fear by getting the key off him and visiting his studio. She discovers a number of pictures of a room in the hospital that suggest that, through his drawings, Arthur may be acting as a conduit for messages from the past and warnings from the future that reveal some very uncomfortable home truths to Dr Haver.
The actors do a good job with the limited one-dimensional characters they are given with perhaps Carroll as Arthur the best of the cast. The cinematography emphasises greyish colours: even the walls of the mental hospital have greyish-green colour with rust stains here and there, suggesting that the building itself (and by implication the people working there) is inadequate for the needs of the patients. The music soundtrack is overbearing and jarring in its near-hysterical conjuration of fear and foreboding; given the sparse setting of the hospital and the minimal style of filming and acting, the film would have been better off with no music at all.
The plot may be implausible but it does suggest that the culture of mental asylums in the West can be harmful to their patients because they are subjected to biases of the staff treating them, and thus are forced to bear not only the burden of therapies and medication prescribed by their doctors for their supposed conditions (and the side effects of those therapies and medication) but also the burden of their treating doctors’ own hang-ups, especially if the treatment does not work as it is supposed to do according to the textbook and/or if the patient refuses to co-operate. Did the patient who committed suicide do so because in some way he was driven to do so by Dr Haver, even if unconsciously on her part? Is Dr Haver some unwitting Angel of Death who transmits her childhood trauma of having seen her mother commit suicide to her patients like a contagious disease? Is Arthur fearful that what Dr Haver may have done to her previous patient may happen to him too, and he is trying to warn her?
While the film is very suspenseful and has a very Gothic look, it has too many irritating horror-movie stereotypes: the haunted house harbouring dark secrets, the unnecessary and ridiculous music soundtrack, and ultimately the depiction of the mental hospital as an Arkham-asylum institution where the staff are barely able to keep perceived forces of chaos at bay, when in fact the staff themselves may be bringing chaos to their patients. Still, the message that we in the West do not really treat mental illness very well, and dump our prejudiced perceptions and stereotypes onto mentally ill people to their detriment, comes through strongly; it is a message that speaks to us of our own arrogance, cruelty, denial and ignorance.