There is no mistaking Fear(S) of the Dark for anything but French. You could dub it into Swahili and it would still be French. Consequently, The peculiar takes on “terror” here are about as far removed from Freddy and Jason as you could possibly image.
There is an airy sedated feeling to Fear(S) of the Dark. Each of the 6 tales of unease lulls you into a dream state before pulling the rug out from under you. It’s sort of like a collection of animated Twilight Zone episodes where the twist ending is always ennui and malaise. I had to watch the film twice to “get” all of it, and even then it all sort of melded together in my mind like the remnants of a striking but absurd dream.
The set ups or the four main narratives are banal. A geeky boy finally gets a girlfriend. A young girl moves to a new town where she is teased with a local legend. A man encounters a town from his youth. A man spends an afternoon home alone. These are the set ups, but one would be hard pressed to guess where they go.
It’s not that these shorts are revolutionary. In fact, the actual stories are quite typical. You have the monsters in the night, the dream within a dream, the revenge of nature and the Kafka-esque hell of solitude. You’ve seen it before, and yet, it feels fresh.
Perhaps it is the presentation. The minimalist black and white animation accompanied by an even more minimal soundtrack lets the film seep into your subconscious. There are no jolts, no loud violin strings, no “it was only a cat” moments. Instead, there is a growing, creeping, morbid sense of doom about it all. Like some unfathomable specter is slowly tightening his grip about your throat.
Fear(S) of the Dark is just about as visually striking as a film could hope to be. The first short perfectly captures Charles (Black Hole) Burn’s signature style of thick outlines and shading. This is followed by ultra-sleek work done in the popular outline-less (i.e. Samurai Jack) style. The third short feels like it was drawn by hand in charcoal. The final is done entirely using negative space. In between these shorts we get a rough, pencil-like silent connective tissue featuring a cruel man with a pack of dogs and a series of moving Rorschachs narrated by a self absorbed bourgeois woman.
These styles are distinct and separate, and yet somehow everything feels cohesive. The mood, tone and pace builds from one short to the next. Themes recur. Images bleed from one story to the next. It shouldn’t but it works.
And yet, it all feels like less than the sum of it’s parts.
Yes, much of Fear(S) of the Dark is superlative. But it is also perhaps a shade too oblique. Too, the micro-shorts between main episodes are somewhat underwhelming. While the story with the dogs is deliciously mean, it is also fairly perfunctory. It adds the blood and guts factor, but it lacks ingenuity. And the clever animation can only make up for so much in that regard.
The other problem is that the film is ordered wrong. The first short is by far the most effective leaving everything afterwards to feel slightly anti-climactic. While the second is quite good it would have done well to be split up more. It is structured in a way that it could have easily taken the place of the woman’s diatribe–an element that, beyond feeling like a gratuitous long form reference to Godard’s 2 or 3 Thing I know About Her…adds little to the proceedings. And unforgivably, the final two shorts simply cannot match the first two in style, substance or effect. They lay there inert when compared to what has come before. Were this order reversed, the film might work better.
But still, there is much to enjoy and ponder here. Philosophy from Sartre and Kafka, a pitch black sense of humor that would do Vonnegut proud and some hypnotic animation.
While it is certainly not for everyone, Fear(S) of the Dark brings enough to the table to warrant a look. A must see for horror fans who prefer Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovercraft to Wes Craven and Hershel Gordon Lewis.
Someday this will make a hell of a double feature with Paris, Ja Taime at The New Beverly Cinema.