A weekend retreat at an isolated cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s a bit of a rhetorical question since the old ‘cabin in the woods’ trope has been used to make dozens and dozens of horror movies, whether it’s a group of cabins at a summer camp (Friday the 13th) or a single standalone structure (Cabin in the Woods). All the filmmaker needs to do to fit the mold is find a reason to get a group of people to the cabin and then come up with some creative ways to knock them off one by one until the mystery behind it all is revealed.
In terms of how to bring the people together in Irrational Fear, director Hunter Johnson comes up with the idea of making the cabin the center of a retreat for people suffering from, as the title explains, irrational fears. Among them, there’s Taylor (Leah Wiseman) who is afraid of being touched and Jake (Kaleb Shorey) who is a germaphobe. Cameron (Mathias Blake) is afraid of choking, while Helen (Cati Glidewell) is afraid of water. These and other phobics are all under the care of Dr. Sanders (Charles Chudabala), who has guaranteed them a weekend that will ‘change their lives forever’.
It’s a clumsy bit of foreshadowing to hear Dr. Sanders say at the first group session for the cabin dwellers, but it is an interesting idea that lets us know the first part of the contract between the director and his audience has been fulfilled: He’s gathered people at a remote cabin. Now they just have to start dying off in some creative ways. Unfortunately, while people die in Irrational Fear, there’s nothing particularly creative, original, or scary about it when they do. Worse there’s no real connection between the person’s phobia and their demise. Or at least not one that works. For example, think of a person who is afraid of being touched and how you would kill them. Chances are that lots of hands coming out of a hole in the ground and pulling her under would not be top of your list. Yet it’s what Johnson chooses, and he does it without any explanation about whose hands they are or how they got in the hole. Throwing a blanket explanation of ‘hallucinations’ in the last acts isn’t enough.
Any horror fan can name a dozen or more equally unexplained kills to be found in even the best genre films, but those all probably had a director or a cast strong enough to make you ignore any impossibilities in the death scenes until after the lights came back on. That doesn’t happen when watching Irrational Fears; all you can think about is how what you are watching doesn’t make any sense. The actors seem to feel the same way, They all look unnaturally self-conscious in the movie. You can almost see some of them flinch right before they say their lines in a scene as if the director saying ‘action’ startled them. Some recover quickly, like Wiseman who manages to find the right balance between a person facing her fears and falling victim to them in her portrayal of Taylor. Others just don’t get past that deer in headlights look.
And then there’s the work of Charles Chudabala as Dr. Sanders, the therapist in charge of the weekend retreat. For a character like this to work, he needs to be charming, almost seductive, with an edge that gets honed to razor sharpness as the story moves along. He has to make you believe people that desperate people looking for help would follow him out to the cabin for a weekend of intense experimental therapy, ready to do whatever he asked of them knowing that he could save their lives. And you need the audience to swallow the same Kool-Aid. Chudabala doesn’t do that. Instead, he gives us a character that’s all leers and twitches, a character that couldn’t look any guiltier if he was twirling a Snidely Whiplash mustache and laughing maniacally at the end of every sentence. And that’s before anything to be guilty about even happens.
- John Black, Irrational Fear