If you’re a fan of animation and graphic novels, Fear(s) of the Dark is cause for celebration. It’s also equally absorbing for purveyors of experimental cinema, and those of us who revel in German Expressionism, Surrealism, and related avant-garde movements that try to approximate the experience of the subconscious. The movie is an art project built on the premise of nightmares: An interwoven series of short black-and-white sketches made by six American and French cartoonists and graphic artists, all of them reaching back to their own primal fears for inspiration.
The best segments of Fear(s) are also the ones with a minimal sense of constructed narrative, and which get most of their mileage out of the sheer spookiness of individual moments. In the piece by graphic artist Blutch, an engrossing bit of charcoal-dirty macabre, set in a vaguely 18th century Europe, a demonic-looking aristocrat walks his pack of blood-thirsty hounds through the grimy countryside. With savage delight, he unleashes his hounds on horrified victims one by one as he goes along. Of all the movie’s sketches, Blutch’s is most effective, the one that most closely feels like a direct projection of a nightmare, richly evoking evil through its rough-hewn artwork, and touches of humor and grotesquery.
Running head-to-head in a close second are the entries by Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire. Mattotti’s is a quasi-thriller in which a boy harkens back to the disappearance of a close friend, and the possibility of a supernatural explanation. A Dali-esque dreamscape of Spanish-Moorish churches and town squares, and vast, mysterious horizons sets the tone of horror just right. Working in a similar vein is Richard McGuire’s piece about a man who stumbles out of a snowstorm into, you guessed it, a haunted house. McGuire’s film ratchets up the terror slowly and surely as the unsuspecting blunderer roams the house, aided only by the glow of a lamp or the fireplace; indeed, it’s a masterful exercise in how the starkest light and the deepest shadows can amplify our anxieties. But where both Mattotti’s and McGuire’s films lose their magic is in the overlaying of a dull narrative explanation. That literality takes away from their moodiness and power, shaking us out of a cinematic dream to remind us that there is a story with pieces that we must feel obliged to put together.
Echoes of David Lynch and Adrian Tomine can be heard in the strange, sexually charged goings-on of Charles Burns’s piece about a shy biology student who realizes that a bizarre insect that escaped from his boyhood collection could be responsible for his girlfriend’s monstrous transformation. Burns’s film start off so well, full of dread and loneliness, that it’s a shame that it ends snared in a silly denouement that seems lifted from a weaker Twilight Zone episode. Marie Caillou’s tale of an innocent Japanese schoolgirl’s unraveling, and the curse of a samurai ghost similarly gets lost in a frame-story about the girl being forced to re-live the horrid slaying of her family, and the possibility that she’s been possessed by the samurai ghost. These enforced narratives bleed dry the haunting sensations at these stories’ heart.
Interlinking these experiments is a thoroughly unwelcome bit of meditative abstraction by Pierre di Sciullo. We see black-and-white patterns morphing from one design to another while a weary female voiceover reflects on her fears and disillusionments with modern life. It’s a thoroughly self-indulgent bit of pseudo-philosophical malarkey reminiscent of the worst French tendencies towards petty, nuclear age solipsism that makes you want to slap the entire French nation. I cringed every time di Sciullo’s sections came on, and learned to take it as an obnoxious commercial interruption in an otherwise good program. Fear(s) of the Dark is a daring, unusual Halloween treat: Where it works, it demonstrates how the mere tricks of light and shadow, sound and silence, texture and design can succeed in creeping us out, and getting under our skin.
Directed by: Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire
Written by: Blutch, Charles Burns, Pierre di Sciullo, Jerry Kramsky, Richard McGuire, Michel Pirus, Romain Slocombe
Cast: Gil Alma, Aure Atika, François Creton, Guillaume Depardieu, Sarah-Laure Estragnet, Nicole Garcia, Louisa Pili, Christian Hecq, Arthur H., Christian Hincker
Runtime: 85 min.