Bump(s) in the night

Pub date October 29, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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In the new animated horror film Fear(s) of the Dark, artistic director Etienne Robial convened some of the most influential graphic artists of the modern era and dared them to respond to a simple question: "What scares you?" Working under minimum guidelines of time limit and color (monochrome was required), the selected comic and graphic novel artisans — including cartoonist Charles Burns, The New Yorker illustrator Blutch, British designer Richard McGuire, and others — produced highly personal vignettes that were woven into a Sigmund Freud-meets-William Gaines omnibus. But as with 2006’s celebrity smorgasbord Paris, je t’aime, the ambitious conceit of Robial’s film exceeds the individual contributions, which often drift into misguided forms of pop-psychology and self-conscious pleonasm. Never more terrifying than The Interpretation of Dreams, and never more enlightening than Tales from the Crypt, Fear(s) of the Dark is nonetheless an interesting exercise in atmosphere.

Structured as a frame story of sorts, the film begins with a pack of four voracious hounds, tethered to a sadist, who set out across the countryside in search of blood. Positioned along the backdrop of this chase are four vignettes of horror that center on popular phobias. The opener, created by Charles Burns, follows a social outcast whose childhood fascination with entomology comes to haunt him as a young man. When maladjusted student Eric finally meets the girl of his dreams, Laura, the creepy twitch of insects from his bed threatens to wreck his chances. Burns’ beautiful comic-book drawing style, a black and white relative to Lichtenstein’s panochrome creations, perfectly captures the frenzy of young lovers destined for doom.

The second tale, by far the most underdeveloped and least satisfying, centers on a young Japanese girl possessed by an Edo samurai. Drawn in the fast-paced anime style, Marie Caillou and Romain Slocombe’s use of proleptic slippages — although common in the anime genre — are often more confusing than frightening and gives the sequence the overall sense of an abridged sketch. In contrast, Lorenzo Mattotti’s contribution is much more mysterious and subtle in tonality, using a less op-art form of shading and pencil strokes. His story focuses on a young boy whose town is terrorized by a nocturnal beast, a literal bête noire. When a school chum claims to know the monster’s location, he suddenly disappears and the boy joins a search party to slay whoever or whatever is responsible.

The fourth vignette, contributed by Richard McGuire, deserves special attention for its innovative use of silence and darkness to instill a particularly effective kind of horror. A man stranded in the middle of a blizzard forces himself into a darkened house for shelter and finds a mysterious presence waiting for him. Forgoing the loquacious first person device used in other chapters of the film, McGuire explores the muted setting of the house itself, which may or may not have its own sinister character. The genius of McGuire’s piece rests in its celebration of the virtual and inanimate through mere suggestion — the creaking of the stairwell, the slamming of a door, the momentary pall of a silhouette. Inspired by the likes of James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) and Roman Polanksi’s The Tenant (1976), McGuire seems keenly aware that the trope of the haunted house is as indebted to the semiotics of the domestic as it is to the novelty of the transmundane.

As the highlight of Fear(s) of the Dark, this final vignette actually challenges many of the oedipal motifs that imbue the bulk of the film. The recurring use of first person confessional lends the vignettes in question a trademark French patina of Godardian psychoanalysis à la King Lear without any real artistic consequence. In other words, Fear(s)‘s theoretical misstep lies in its linking phobia with strategies of therapy — declaration, repentance, and ultimately, resolution — the hallmarks of the "healthy" adult, not the fantasizing child. Its redeeming beauty only arises when the collection of haunted scenarios aims for the viewer’s callow spine rather than his existential brain.

Fear(s) of the Dark opens Fri/31 in Bay Area theaters.