Sunday, January 26, 2014

FEAR[S] OF THE DARK: A Study in Light and Shadow

Fear[s] of the Dark (2007)
Directors: Various
Seen via: MPI Home Video DVD
Rating: 6 / 10

I've always thought that there's untapped potential in animated horror - what better way to transcend the limitations of special effects? Think of the monsters and landscapes that aren't able to be rendered simply due to a film's budget. Can you imagine something as elaborate and terrifying as the panel below making the transition to film?

(Click to zoom. That's from No Hero, by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp, by the way - which isn't a horror comic, but nevertheless has some of the most disturbing violence I've seen on the page.)

Some might point to Japanese animation as the place to look, but I'm not so sure. As unsettling as shows like Serial Experiment Lain or Boogiepop Phantom are, they're still bound to the conventions and style of anime in a way that's somewhat distracting to me. Freeing a film from those limitations would open up so many unexplored dimensions. Satoshi Kon seems to have come as close as possible to break free of these strictures (particularly with Perfect Blue), although to what degree his work can be classified as "horror" is up for debate.

I'll stop that rant before it really starts, but maybe it's clear how excited I was to check out Fear[s] of the Dark, a French anthology film featuring short films by six artists, some of whom have worked in comics, some in the art world, some as illustrators. Each film is done largely in black and white, in keeping with the theme, but other than that, the stories are pretty varied in nature.

The film begins with a wraparound segment by the French cartoonist Blutch, rendered in a sketchy style that looks as if it's done in charcoal. We follow a man walking a pack of dogs through the wildnerness, then a town. He looses the hounds upon different people he encounters, cackling manically. Honestly, I wish there were more to this segment than that, but that's about it. As a wraparound, it doesn't tie the stories together much, nor does it stand on its own as having much to say.

A perfect rendering of my first-world ennui.
The second film also ends up being a wraparound, although it's not immediately clear that this is the case. This segment by the artist/typographer Pierre Di Sciullo is highly abstract, and features a series of ever-morphing shapes accompanied by a voice-over. We hear the speaker talking about personal fears and insecurities - all mundane, but somewhat eerie amidst the monochrome transformations it's set against. It's almost like an inner monologue with the speaker's psyche laid bare, the kind of musings on humanity, society, and personal failure your mind cycles through in the hours just before dawn. This one is more effective at setting the mood of the film than the Blutch story, but in the end it's really just fragments.

What I didn't immediately realize was that this film inserts wraparound segments in the middle of other short films. It's incredibly disorienting at first, which is the point, I think.

The first non-fragmented short in the film is by Charles Burns, and this was the one I was most looking forward to. I'm a big fan of his work in comics, particularly Black Hole, whose film adaptation (with David Fincher reportedly at the helm) seems stuck in perpetual limbo. This short shares some themes with Black Hole - most prominently the conflation of sexual awakening and bodily mutation - although the story here is more clear-cut and less ambiguous.

We follow an uptight kid named Eric as he navigates college life. While he's typically studious and withdrawn, after an encounter with a girl he meets one day he begins to change... The film also plays around with the reversal of gender roles, which ties in nicely with the physical transformations that eventually occur. Overall, it's a good little short film.

The art is recognizably Burns', with his bold, high-contrast style intact, but it's been animated with computer-rendered graphics. This seems to diminish it somewhat by adding a third dimension. Burns' work seems better to me when it's static. Maybe it would have been better as a traditionally animated short, as opposed to the ultra-smooth 3D rendering. Still, this is mostly me being picky, as this is of the best segments of the film.

The second short is animated by Marie Caillou, from a story written by artist Romain Slocombe. Sumako is a young Japanese girl abducted by a mysterious man who keeps her captive and drugged in an unknown location. In her dreams, she's the new pupil at a school filled with bullies who try and scare her with tales of the samurai ghost Hajime. The ghost supposedly lives in the cemetery behind the school, and it's only a matter of time before Sumako goes to investigate the rumors herself.

There are hints of Slocombe's surgical fetishism in the film, but it's scaled back somewhat, and not nearly as disturbing or intriguing as his photographic work. I love the inclusion of Japanese folklore and numerous Yokai, which are wonderfully bizarre - particularly the Kasa-obake (umbrella monsters). I wish more had been done with this story. Just as it's getting interesting, it ends.

Lorenzo Mattotti's film is third, and feels like an old fairy tale or ghost story. It's told to us by a man remembering the time he spent in the countryside as a youth. After his uncle goes missing, rumors of a beast stalking the marshes begin to arise, and a hunt for the monster ensues. But is there really something on the loose? And how does the narrator's young friend really know so much about this supposed beast? This is another segment that looks as if it's been done in charcoal. The landscapes are stark and the figures simplistic, almost shadows in many places. It's a creepy and effective style that goes well with the story.

In the final segment, by Richard McGuire, we follow a vagrant as he breaks into an abandoned house to take shelter from a snowstorm. Night falls and he's left in the dark with nothing but a fire and a flashlight for illumination. As he flips through an old photo album, he begins to suspect that whoever lived here in the past was slightly unhinged... and may still be lurking in the dark.

The art is ultra-minimalist, with objects and characters often outlined with just a few bold strokes. It grew on me over time, particularly when the protagonist is wandering through the house alone. But there is quite a bit of downtime throughout the short, with not much to catch the eye while you wait for something to happen.

Overall, Fear[s] of the Dark was not quite what I was expecting, mostly because it seems to be a digressive exercise in style with a lesser emphasis on story. Nevertheless, Burns' and Mattoti's segments are both strong, while McGuire's is interesting, but not outstanding. Calliou's could have done so much more. The use of computer animation is somewhat distracting as well - I would have preferred more traditional animation. As an experiment, Fear[s] of the Dark is moderately successful, but I think there's so much more that could be done within the realm of animated horror.

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