Saturday, April 30, 2016

Hot Docs ’16: Fear Itself

Eighty-three years after his first inaugural address, FDR’s words still hold resonance for us: “all we have to fear is the lame clip package.” Obviously, he was trying to rally the nation against dubious docu-essays during our darkest hour. Of course, there are plenty of other things to be afraid of, like cannibals and satanic possession. The things we fear and the ways that fear manifests says a lot about a national culture. However, Charlie Lyne is too afraid of his own subject—horror movies—to give them the analysis they deserve in Fear Itself (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.

Lyne’s compilation essay is entirely cobbled together from clips of horror movies and a sizable number of ringers, only occasionally referred to by the meta-fictional narrator. Apparently, she has been binging horror films while recuperating from an auto-accident that may have also claimed the life of her mother. However, instead of catharsis or escapism, she feels desensitized and depressed.

There is something innately problematic about a film like Fear Itself or the glacial anti-zombie zombie-movie Here Alone (the inexplicable winner of the Tribeca Award) that have deep-seated contempt for their genres. By holding themselves above genre conventions, they basically make a half-hearted job of things. In the case of FI, Lyne’s narrator never delves into the collective anxieties reflected on-screen.

During the early Atomic age, fear of nuclear war produced a host of radiation-mutated monsters. Neurotic uncertainty regarding changing gender and sexuality norms is reflected in a host of slasher movies, going back to Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960. On the other side of the spectrum, our collective guilt and the kernel of Catholicism buried deep within us all is the reason demonic horror in The Exorcist tradition scares the bejesus out of us. Unfortunately, Lyne never goes to any of these places.

At least Lyne has a decent eye for visuals. Italian Giallos are quite prominent in his mix, but that is not a bad thing. He is also refreshingly international in focus, incorporating several Japanese and Mexican films. He draws on the vintage Universal monster movies surprisingly heavily, but Hammer is bizarrely absent. Yet, we can see how uneasy Lyne and company are with horror from the many films outside of genre he shoehorns into a thematic discussion, such as Alive, Gravity, Logan’s Run, and both the Alan Clarke and Gus Van Sant Elephants.

Frame for frame, you can probably find slier social commentary in horror films than any other genre, but aside from a few choice scenes culled from Dawn of the Dead, Lyne never gives masters like Roger Corman and John Carpenter their due. That is frustrating for fans and offers no constructive insights for horror movie outsiders. Not recommended, Fear Itself screens tomorrow (5/1), Tuesday (5/3), and Wednesday (5/4), as part of Hot Docs ’16.