FEAR(S) OF THE DARK is not to be missed!

Contributed to OWF by Richard D. Lewis Can a cartoon really scare you? Probably not. Then again, it would be an injustice to call IFC Films€™ FEAR(S) OF THE DARK a cartoon. It is animated, to be sure. But this collection of six interweaving tales, drained of color, seeks to penetrate much deeper than the normal Saturday fare. And it mostly succeeds. Phobias, irrational fear, torture, cruel manipulation, and sexual slavery, all come together in this shadow world of the subconscious mind.

€œThe whole idea from the beginning when the producers first started putting the project together is that this would be a meditation on fear,€ says Richard McGuire, one of the film€™s directors. €œI think everyone is afraid of the dark. It€™s a primal thing.€
Presented in stark black and white, each tale is distinctively drawn and singularly presented by ten top graphic artists. And while the experience is not altogether terrifying, FEAR(S) OF THE DARK is most certainly unsettling, in much the same way an Edgar Allen Poe story or Grimm€™s Fairy Tale might be.
€œBlack and white was their (the producer€™s) idea,€ says McGuire, who credits Felix Vallotton€™s black and white artwork as a source of inspiration. €œWith black and white you have areas where the light falls off altogether, allowing your mind to complete the image.€
Black and white art and photography have always been an effective means of pure storytelling. Some of the tales, especially McGuire€™s, are also reminiscent of the work of Frank Miller in the use of shadow and negative space. Although Miller€™s SIN CITY, or the even more effective 300, combining live-action and big budget effects with animation, should not be compared in scope or scale to this delightfully brazen but mostly art house entry.
€œOh it is brazen,€ quips McGuire. €œIt was brazen of the producer to even attempt the project in the first place. This film would not be made in the U.S.€
Recorded in French, with English subtitles, FEAR(S) has garnered praise and won awards in such venues as this year€™s Sundance as well as the Los Angeles International Film festival, and features the talents of graphic artists Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Romain Slocombe, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Jerry Kramsky, Michel Pirus, Etienne Robial and the aforementioned Richard McGuire.
€œFrench audiences are much more engaged with comics,€ says McGuire. €œBurns and Blutch have huge followings in France.€
€œI really have a great deal of admiration for all of the artists involved,€ says Charles Burns, also one of the film€™s directors. €œIt is really a showcase display for all of us involved.€
This film is presented in the anthology manner of movies such as George A. Romero and Stephen King€™sCREEPSHOW, where each story stands alone but the sum effect of each successive tale generates a mounting feeling of dread.
€œIt is a classic horror story with universal themes,€ says Burns.
The soundtrack is effective, complicated and nuanced, and the recorded voice-overs and sound effects are shrill and unnerving. Take for instance the piercing screams of a young girl being held down, while her tormentor releases a jar of spiders, the €œpretties€ that proceed to crawl up her skirt. In another case, a snarling dog first sniffs out then devours a woman€™s genitalia. Thankfully, the filmmakers turn their animated camera away so we don€™t have to watch that gruesome act. Still, the agonizing screams will haunt the viewer long after leaving the theatre. The artists featured have all drawn from their own twisted imaginations and creative talent, to tell their tales. From a love-struck student whose girlfriend is weirdly obsessed in her affection, to a Japanese schoolgirl menaced by the ghost of a long-dead samurai and all-to-real school bullies, all chapters realized through a diverse range of animation styles. The film opens with the Blutch short, perhaps the most viscerally terrifying, which interweaves itself with the other stories throughout the movie. In this creation, a 17th century man is walking a pack of vicious attack dogs, which he gleefully unleashes on various members of the public, one by one. The sketchy nature of the Blutch drawings adds to the brutality and the ending, while predictable, is satisfying in its sense of karmic justice. In the creepy tale created by Charles Burns, a young college student ends up as a prisoner of an insect which he had kept as a childhood pet. In some weird twist of fate, this creature ends up enslaving him by posing as a very sex hungry, voluptuous, blonde co-ed.
€œIt€™s not a story about revenge,€ says Burns. €œIt€™s about examining male and female sex roles, turning sexual stereotypes on their heads.€ Although graphically explicit, Burns insists his tale is not intended to titillate. €œAll kinds of things titillate people. Insects incubating humans and hatching from (a person€™s) open wounds are not sexually exciting to me.€
A real-life tragedy adds weight to the Burns drama. The young man in the story is voiced by actor Guillaume Depardieu, son of French screen legend Gerard Depardieu. The young actor recently died suddenly due to complications arising from pneumonia.
€œGuillaume and I hit it off right from the start,€ says Burns. €œI appreciated meeting him and knowing him. It is a horrible tragedy. He was just starting what should have been a long life.€
Another story that weaves in and out throughout is a kaleidoscopic collage of abstract images by Pierre Di Sciullo, which is accompanied by a female voiceover. This particular element gives a welcome breath of relief between the other segments; although the political ranting and droning on about personal insecurities and the meaningless nature of life is pretentious and (frankly) gets a bit boring. Perhaps the best realized tale of all is Richard McGuire and Michel Pirus's contribution, which also happens to be the last story in the film and one of only three allowed to run uninterrupted. In this final chapter, a miserable and lonely man carries around a flickering candle, which illuminates half-glimpsed horrors inside an old, dark, haunted house. Combining elements of a Honthorst painting, Japanese horror, and good old fashioned €œthings that go bump in the night,€ this little gem is a mini-masterpiece.
€œWe focused on fear of the dark,€ says McGuire, who co-wrote his story with Pirus. €œI seldom collaborate, but I did here. Michel and I have been friends for years."
Writing a script without words is no doubt a daunting task that calls for teamwork.
€œI started the script without Michel then he came along and filled in the blanks.€
McGuire enjoyed the collaboration so much that he and Pirus are currently scripting another screenplay, a feature, which the duo expects will be translated into a live-action film.
€œWe are doing really intense storyboarding like an animated feature; but we are hoping for live action. Animation takes too long.€
McGuire says that although all the artists involved are good friends they did not collaborate across storylines. Each of the six chapters were created independently. Despite the separation of effort, McGuire points out that there are many similar elements that echo across the six tales
€œYes,€ laughs the director. €œFor example a decapitated head appears in many of the stories.€ A weird coincidence? Perhaps. Or maybe these are just universal themes of fear.
Guillermo del Toro of PAN'S LABYRINTH and HELLBOY fame calls FEAR(S) OF THE DARK €œThrilling, disturbing and haunting.€ And says it has €œRazor-sharp images that will slice your eye and nest there forever.€ Although that oversells the horror aspect a bit, overall the film does succeed in engaging and disturbing the viewer. Watching each episode is reminiscent to late nights spent screening old black and white re-runs of The Twilight Zone. You may not be scared out of your wits, but you certainly will have an unsettled feeling. The only major complaint I have is that the English subtitles are sometimes hard to read, especially against the white areas of the animations. That and the 80 minute runtime is a bit thin for a feature film. FEAR(S) OF THE DARK opened in New York City on October 22nd and in Los Angeles on October 31st at Landmark's Nuart Theatre, followed by a national roll-out. Fear(s) will appeal more to fans of graphic art than strict horror lovers. It is just not that scary. This is definitely underground material which will probably find a natural home on DVD.

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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.