Homegrown in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Johnny Hickey is making a name for himself in film and in activism. His first film, Oxy-Morons, had a successful stint on Netflix and is now available on Amazon Prime. Oxy-Morons has been dubbed by Hickey as an “opioid tragedy”, and in its own way, HABITUAL is an opioid tragedy as well. Delving into Hickey’s favorite subject – the opioid and drug use subculture of Boston and the surrounding areas, HABITUAL is a gritty thriller with a deeper purpose.
Set in two parallel timelines, HABITUAL takes an ambitious foray into playing with time, space, and reality – while simultaneously telling a very real, very raw story. Unfortunately, its lack of decisiveness is the core of many of HABITUAL’s issues. Instead of being able to properly explore the world, it almost feels like we’re held back by it. The first storyline introduces us to a dark, disturbing character known as “The Blight”, first discussed in the harried writings of insane asylum patients after experimental drugs were forced on them. In the modern day, The Blight chases after a group of pill-popping partygoers, picking them off one by one, each with their own unique nightmare demise. At the same time, in the alternate but parallel timeline, these same partygoers are forced to face their reality – or lack thereof- as they seek their next designer drug fix. Slowly, and expertly, these timelines overlap, though the aching anticipation wears off quickly as the ultimate crossing point is telegraphed long before it ever happens. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing – including a simmering, tense spiderweb of a plot – is just that – Too much. Another draft or two and some solid edits could have solved this problem, and tightened up this story into something with a much more solid foothold into the lexicon of asylum-focused horror. (And really, who couldn’t use more of that?)
The location of the majority of the film is Massachusetts’ own Westborough State Hospital, shuttered in 2010 and since the time of this production totally demolished. Brilliantly, Hickey and crew let the location speak for itself, and much of the interior shots are wide, sweeping tours through the abandoned, molding rooms of the former asylum. There’s a real-life fear factor here, watching actors make their way through decaying halls and up rotting stairways.
Unfortunately, HABITUAL also suffers (and so do we) from some pretty atrociously inconsistent sound design, and what I would lovingly refer to as a cast of non-actors. It’s clear that Hickey plucked actors from his friends and family – and while some have film or tv in their resume, it’s not as if we are looking at high caliber, experienced performers. The deeper meaning of HABITUAL, and its not-so-subtle nod to the deadly grip of addiction is hindered at nearly every turn. The inconsistencies in tone, both literal and metaphorical, are the downfall of HABITUAL. In spite of a concept that could truly soar, the weight of an inexperienced cast and technical issues (and dare I say, mistakes) weigh it down, and noticeably drag the ambitious and important plot down with them. I have high hopes for the kind of work Hickey is doing – it’s difficult to stomach, but has a message that matters and needs to be told. I just hope the “blight” of inexperience doesn’t continue to chase him for too long.