Queer Horror ‘Hypochondriac’ Gets To The Heart and Horror of Mental Illness [SXSW 2022]


Since I was in high school I knew something was different about my dad. From unpredictable and cruel mood wings to incredibly energetic moments, you could never really tell what mood you’d catch him in on any given day. He’s only ever been diagnosed with ADHD. But there is most likely an underlying mood disorder that I fear will never be addressed. This is why I haven’t spoken to him in over two years. The cruelty he was capable of beat me down for most of my life. It was time to be free of the emotional whiplash caused by drunk text messages at 3 AM about how much of a bitch I was or how proud he was of me. It’s been painful but exponentially better for my mental health. 

This is why Addison Heimann’s feature film debut Hypochondriac hit me like a Mac truck barreling down the highway. While main character Will (Zach Villa) endures a much more extreme situation, Heimann captures the fear, panic, and exhaustion that comes from having a mentally ill parent. Not only that, he captures the terror of realizing that your parent has passed on their mental illness to you. 

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Hypochondriac opens with young Will’s mother trying to kill him in the midst of a paranoid episode. While she stops herself and apologizes, the damage has been done. Will is forever changed by the actions of his mother and the consequences of her actions. Then, we flash forward 18 years to an adult Will working in a pottery store and dancing to Jessie J. He appears to have figured his life out, not letting his past define him. But, when his mom gets in contact with him after a decade of silence, this triggers Will into a tailspin. Old wounds are opened and he begins to realize that can never truly outrun his past. Or a diagnosis.

At first, it’s small things, like fingers locking up and brain fog. Then, it begins to escalate into full-blown hallucinations involving a man in a wolf suit (think the rabbit from Donnie Darko yet somehow more terrifying). Will googles his symptoms, hoping it’s something like ALS or MS. Anything but schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Doctors dismiss his physical symptoms as stress with no concern about whether or not there’s something deeper going on here. One doctor named Chaz simply prescribes him vitamin D. Even his own father glibly says to Will, “well if you are crazy then I’ll just have to put you in a mental hospital like your mother.” The situation is hopeless, with no support in site except for his boyfriend, Luke (Devon Graye). But even then, Will pushes away to keep Luke safe. 

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As the film progresses and hits a certain point, it feels like a nonstop ride into Hell that’s overwhelming. Images of suicidal ideation and monstrous figures as well as actual injuries dominate the screen. There’s a world where Hypochondriac would be a much more exploitative movie. It could easily revel in the pain of its queer protagonist who ostensibly has zero support system, despite the seeming privilege of money thanks to a lawyer dad. But Heimann avoids it with his ending and his seeming deep personal connection to the subject, as announced through a title card that declares the film is based on an actual breakdown.

Villa puts on an emotional performance that ranges from happy and cheerful to paranoid and cruel. He is able to capture these waves of extreme moods with surprising ease. It’s an impressive feat for what seems to be a difficult and demanding role. With each scream or flash of a smile, Villa brings Will’s complicated character to life. He makes Will feel real and not like a caricature of someone living with a mood disorder. He is not begging for pity; he’s begging for understanding.

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While Hypochondriac is very much grounded in reality, Heimman makes sure to veer into horror primarily through Will’s hallucinations and the haunting wolf. As Will begins to see things that aren’t actually there, the scene transposes on top of itself creating a distortion of reality. Colors change and the wolf charges at the camera, creating effective jump scares that remind us that this is in fact a horror movie.

I was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and am in the midst of a potential ADHD diagnosis, the exact issues my dad also struggles with. I’ve been paralyzed with fear that I’m becoming him. I saw myself in Will, panic in his eyes as his mother calls him for the first time in a decade. As Will spirals into his own struggles with schizophrenia, I saw myself spiraling and dealing with suicidal ideation with the prospect of never being able to truly have control of my brain. 

Hypochondriac is a difficult watch, especially for those coping with parental trauma. But it’s also an incredibly important film that provides a much-needed look at the reality of mental illness and the ways we mask it to avoid being open about our feelings in fear of being judged. It delves into physical manifestations of trauma and the all-encompassing reality of descending into a harmful spiral. Mental illness is messy and painful not just the person with the illness, but for those around them. Hypochondriac never shies away from that messiness, creating a character who I deeply love and will forever appreciate. Hypochondriac makes people like me feel seen. And for that, I am truly grateful.



‘Hypochondriac’ is a difficult watch, but ultimtaely it’s a painful yet beautiful look at running from trauma and how it catches up to you.



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