Monday, October 20, 2008

Animated Anthology: Fear(s) of the Dark

Tales of terror have always proved oddly compatible with the short film and anthology formats. One of the most beloved series from television’s golden age was The Twilight Zone, an anthology show of the supernatural, suspenseful, and bizarre. Horror movies have consistently revisited the anthology format with films like Creepshow and the campy Vincent Price Poe and Hawthorne adaptations of the 1960’s. Six stylistically distinct graphic artists have now joined forces to tell their fearful tales in the animated French anthology film Fear(s) of the Dark (trailer here), opening in New York this Wednesday.

Anthology films are by their very nature uneven, but Fear(s) is unusual in that its four main stories are actually quite strong. It is the connective tissue that is weak. While that might sound like a happy trade-off, the framing device, be it the comic book in Creepshow or the sudden materialization of Rod Serling on the Twilight Zone, is a large part of the charm in this subgenre.

Introducing the film and continuing between the self-contained stories are sequences of a blood-thirsty nobleman setting loose his rabid hounds on the terrified commoners. More cruel than chilling (at least certainly not in a good way), these segments quickly get repetitive. However, they give way to some much more satisfyingly creepy tales.

The first real story is an uncanny riff on Kafka from Charles Burns. It nails the Tales from the Crypt story-arc, nicely building the tension up to a neatly unsettling conclusion. It is followed by Marie Callou’s manga-inspired tale of Sumako, a little girl terrorized by the ghost of a samurai (or is she?), which might be the most genuinely disturbing and effective offering in the film. Smartly written by Romain Slocombe, it cleverly problematizes its on-screen reality, hinting at sinister doings in the evil hospital Sumako keeps waking up in, without ever fully tipping its hand.

While the first two proper installments are the more story-driven (though certainly graphically striking in their own right), the third and fourth full segments derive much of their effect through their visuals. Lorenzo Mattotti’s impressionistic art compellingly evokes the childhood terror of the monster out there, in this case in the bog, and a sense of archetypal horror. Fear(s) concludes with Richard McGuire’s Old Dark House tale, which is quite dark indeed, relying on sound effects, stark images, and even a pitch black screen during one sequence.

The weakest contribution to Fear(s) comes in the form of a pretentious monologue by Pierre di Sciullo accompanied by his geometric animation. Intended as a conceptual meditation on fear, it delivers annoyingly self-important angst like: “I’m scared of being irredeemably bourgeois.” Being trapped anywhere with such a person is truly terrifying to contemplate.

Almost entirely black-and-white, Fear(s) is a very cool looking film. Despite the weakness of the interweaving material, the actual meat of Fear(s) is quite strong overall. Four out of six is not bad, considering the weakest links are also the shortest. Horror film and animation junkies should get a kick out of the work of Burns, Callou, Mattotti, and McGuire, but should bring ipods to listen to during di Sciullo’s whine. It opens in New York at the IFC Film Center on Wednesday.