Six animated shorts to scare you
by Jason Blair
FEAR(S) OF THE DARK: Directed by Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire.Written by Blutch, Burns, di Sciullo, McGuire, Jerry Kramski, Michael Pirus and Roman Slocombe. Music, Laurent Perez. IFC Films, 2008. Unrated. 85 minutes.
Like Stephen King’s Creepshow for Francophiles, Fear(s) of the Dark combines six tales of terror that, were they equally arresting, might have added up to something special. In French with English subtitles, each short is visually satisfying, a feat that was by no means assured, given that each artist had little to no experience in animation. (All are graphic artists.) The sheer range of styles in Fears(s), which is entirely in black and white, is reason enough to see it; any hope for a true horror picture is not. While you’ll marvel at insects in near-3D richness juxtaposed with rain so austere it resembles pencil scratchings, you won’t experience much of a fright. With two exceptions, Fear(s) is a proud descendant from Tales from the Crypt, setting you up with adolescent humor and romance before knocking you down with impossibly gross or bizarre endings that O. Henry would have envied.
Much of Fear(s) has the trapped helplessness of a Kafka story and the narrative simplicity of a comic strip. Some tales fare better than others. Throughout the film, a sinister figure walks the countryside in what appears to be another century. Accompanying him is a pack of murderous dogs, which he releases on helpless victims one by one. As a first impression of Fear(s), it’s as brutal as it is nonsensical. Fortunately, the next chapter recalibrates the film: Focusing on a boy with an overdeveloped passion for insects, it’s a cautionary tale for anyone who ever imprisoned a bug in a Mason jar. After that, a Japanese schoolgirl gets hazed by her wicked schoolmates — or is she hallucinating it from a bed in an asylum? While the story is visually lush, I found it only superficially interesting. My personal favorite is the tale of how an uncle’s disappearance leads his nephew to a terrible discovery. The narrative is lightly sketched and open-ended; the visual style is classic, employing an assured but minimalist rendering of a world that is at once exquisite and terrifying. It reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village — before that film jumped the shark, as they say, and took Shyamalan’s career down with it.
Along with the devilish dog-owner vignettes, a second story recurs throughout Fear(s), a voiceover of a woman revealing her mundane fears — blushing in the supermarket, for example — while Rorschach-like images revolve around the screen. It’s meant to be an ironic counterpart, by my measure, to the more deep-seated fears the other short films express. It’s too subtle narratively and too obvious visually. Not to worry, because the growing consensus among filmgoers is that Fear(s) saves its best for last. In the final tale, a man enters a darkened house during a blinding snowstorm. Using a variety of light sources, the man slowly explores the house, discovering too late that the house is more than it seems. The striking use of contours and shadowplay, of pools of light erupting in total darkness, gives this story tremendous tension and power. While it’s not my favorite, I won’t soon forget it, which can’t be said of every short story in Fear(s).
Fear(s) of the Dark opens Friday, Dec. 5, at the Bijou.