Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fear(s) Of the Dark

Fear(s) Of the Dark aka Peur(s) du noir (2007)
Dir. Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire
Written by Jerry Kramsky, Michel Pirus, Romain Slocombe, Blutch, Charles Burns, Pierre di Sciullo
Starring Aure Atika, Guillaume Depardieu, Louisa Pili, Fran├žois Creton, Christian Hecq, Arthur H

I first learned of this film almost a full ten years ago, and I’ve had a copy almost as long. I’d always planned on watching it during one of these Halloween horror festivals which now take up the majority of my year, but “an animated horror anthology from France” is never the easiest sell --even with an audience primed for the bizarre-- and it got shifted to the back burner. I had even planned on watching it as part of my ongoing series on adult animated film as far back as 2012, when I mentioned it in my CARTOON NOIR review. But for some reason I never did. Frankly I have absolutely no excuse as to why. This is obviously the kind of thing that I would like. But no, it took a visit from my sister --who, after suffering through PHANTASM V with me, insisted that we watch “please, something good for once”-- for me to pull the pin on this one.

Obviously the “animated horror” part of the description is of greater appeal to me than the “France” part, but it gets down to the business of being quintessentially French almost immediately. It begins --after a brief teaser-- with a highly abstract segment, which opens the film and also provides a neat parenthetical palette cleanser between the subsequent segments, and as such serves as the glue which binds the film together. The framing story, if you’re willing to use the term to such abstraction as to be nearly meaningless. It posits a teenage Sean Astin and his two cousins sitting in a tent telling bawdy fables about... wait a minute, sorry, wrong review. No, in an effort to be the Frenchiest piece of art ever set upon by modern eyes, it gives us a disembodied woman’s voice over nonrepresentational geometric images, prattling on as if to a psychiatrist about her various fears until you’re compelled to scream at the TV that you’ll give her something to really be scared of.

Terrifying, terrifying geometric shapes

Now, I went into FEARS OF THE DARK having been assured that this sequence was the most insufferable part. But honestly it sounded pretty cool to me in theory, and I even harbored some hope that it might be exactly my kinda jam. A horror film with a running psychological self-examination to serve as something of a Greek chorus? Sounds cool. Seemed like the kind of philosophical, arty horseshit that would make this film stand out, and maybe even have the capacity to contextualize the horror genre in a new way. Or at least make for an interesting interplay between content and image, which would acquit itself nicely to the so-often-underutilized art of animation.

But the problem here isn’t the concept, so much as the actual content. This lady’s fears are just infuriatingly facile and bourgeois, a maddening nightmare of self-gratification smugly masked as introspection. I’ll admit, the concept of being locked in a timeless, nonspatial prison with this blathering narcissist is probably the most uniquely terrifying concept in the whole movie, but I have my doubts that this was their intent. It’s a shame, because I still maintain this segment is structurally sound -- but director Pierre Di Sciullo (nothing else) either isn’t interesting enough to script anything compelling about the subject, or isn’t interesting enough to realize that this lady’s stream-of-consciousness rambling is unlistenable twaddle.* Too bad, because it really does feel like a missed opportunity to try something a little different.

Fortunately, with that out of the way, the film can get down to the business of doing what it does well: stylish, imaginative little macabre vignettes. They begin with a handsomely appointed tale directed by French cartoonist and occasional actor Christian Hinker (better known by his nom de plume Blutch). It’s rendered with traditional hand-drawn animation in a loose, textured pencil or charcoal, and concerns a cruel-looking man walking four extremely aggressive dogs around the countryside in what looks to be the late 1700’s. Like the nattering geometric fear confessing lady, this segment is broken into several parts and scattered throughout the film for reasons which I cannot really guess at, except that its episodic nature --each dog is released upon a new victim, and finally the walker himself-- makes it a good candidate for doing so. Alas, the tale itself isn’t a particularly interesting one; it’s just some asshole walking around siccing his dogs on people, and if there’s meant to be a specific symbolic takeaway here, it’s lost on me. But I do sort of like the ending in which --for reasons utterly mysterious-- the villain/protagonist releases the final dog on himself, and grins maliciously as it begins to rip him to shreds. It’s not narratively very meaningful, but the grimy, sadistic feel of the art, and the exaggerated malevolence of the expression, utilize some of the tools which animation is uniquely suited to capture. Not essential viewing, to be sure. But considering the startling paucity of animated horror, it’s reassuring that at least this Blutch guy --whatever his capacity for storytelling may be-- seems to grasp the potential for the medium.

Next up is a computer-animated film directed by American cartoonist Charles Burns, who wrote the Black Hole graphic novels that have been on my list for years without making it to my eyes yet, and also did the iconic cover art to Iggy Pop’s Brick By Brick. This one documents the extremely odd relationship between a shy college student and a inexplicably beautiful, lovingly doting young lady. Or is she? It’s probably worth noting that the segment begins with his discovery, as a young boy, of a bizarre, vaguely hominid insect. That seems like it’ll come up again. Unlike the first two segments, this one does have a definite, uneasy story to it, and it’s to Burns’ credit as both a writer and an artist that the the sequence works so well. Though I’ll always prefer the scrappy, hyper-expressive charm of hand-drawn animation over its pixelated cousin, Burns’ uniquely clean, starkly shaded style gives the short a distinct noirish touch, with just a dusting of nightmarish body horror.

In short, this sequence immediately confirms, if there was ever any doubt, that animation is an absolutely ideal medium for horror. The genre, like the emotion from whence it derives its name, is fundamentally not about logic, and it’s certainly not about realism. That’s not a problem with oral or written horror stories, but cinema presents a different sort of challenge, since it’s bound by the basic rule that in order to be photographed, something must exist in reality on some level. But even from the very beginning, the genre has been straining to escape the burden of realism -- witness the imaginative special effects in arguably the very first horror film THE HAUNTED CASTLE, or the delirious surrealistic touches in early silent horror films like WAXWORKS and, of course, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. And you can follow a meandering line from there through the night-and-fog fairy tales of the gothic horror era, through the stylish lunacy of the giallos, to the postmodern deconstructions of the 90’s and the CG boogeymen of today. After all, what is horror anyway, if not a carefully crafted means to subvert our reassuring expectations about reality and the dangers therein? Animation, then, seems uniquely situated to portray the malleable subjective reality of the mind, ignoring the dull, predictable rules of the real world. What could be a more perfect medium for horror?

That case continues to be made in next segment, directed by Marie Caillou (director of one segment of the more family friendly animated anthology Loulou et autres loups, about which I can find virtually no other information), though it takes a bizarre, vaguely anime-ish route to it, perhaps somewhat muddying the waters. This finds a young Japanese schoolgirl being tormented by her cruel classmates and visited by various yoaki and Japanese spirits (including the delightful umbrella-shaped one which I assumed was a reference to the Daiei YOKAI MONSTERS series until I learned that nope, this is actually a real element of Japanese yokai mythology known as Kasa-Obake). Or is she? Because sometimes she’s also in the hospital, being sedated by an evil doctor obsessed with nightmares. I don’t know what to make of the plot to this one, but its crisp, cutesy animation style contrasted with its extravagant (if mostly not explicit) sadism makes for a potent --if somewhat cheaply manipulative-- experience.

Next up is something a bit more focused, though -- a lyrical, atmospheric tone poem from Eisner-award-winning graphic novelist and illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti (no other feature films, but he’ll be my hero forever for apparently illustrating Lou Reed’s weirdo book of reworked Poe poems) in a richly textured charcoal style of traditional animation. It’s the story of a small town gripped by the fear of an unknown creature which may be picking off its citizens one by one, and Mattotti masterfully uses both his capacity for bleak, shadow-drenched compositions and lovely, wistful beauty to conjure a sense of romantic unease. It’s arty and atmospheric more than terrifying, but also maintains the essence of a dark fairy tale for children, highlighted by the arrival of a comically hyper-manly big game hunter. Of course, pure strength will not solve a problem this slippery. Patiently paced and beautifully rendered, this is another terrific example of expertly using the medium to evoke a complicated sort of dread that would be tremendously difficult to achieve with simple photography.

The final segment -- and by a substantial margin the most perfect -- is Richard McGuire’s simple scenario of a burly, mustachioed fellow taking shelter in a dark (and apparently abandoned) old house. McGuire is best known for his medium-bending 1989 short comic Here, (expanded to book-length in 2014) which wikipedia informs me is “likely the most lauded comic book story from recent decades,” though the cited source does not actually make that claim. (Fun fact: he also played bass in the Post-Punk/No-Wave dance band Liquid Liquid). Like most of these directors, McGuire doesn’t seem to have a great deal of experience with animation (although he, like Caillou, seems to be an album of this Loulou et autres loups film), but he takes to the medium with an astounding assurance and immediately begins exploring its most interesting possibilities. His images are beautifully simple -- all shapes and shadows, no border lines whatsoever-- and it afford him the opportunity to play with them endlessly, or, sometimes, to offer no image of any kind, and let the sound and the context tell the story. By telling a story with no words and very simple two-tone images, he’s able to indulge in some absolutely delightful visual playfulness, using the absolute darkness to threaten us with hints of frightening things just outside our senses, and also to taunt us with crafty illusions.      

A few examples:

Those aren’t just brilliant examples of using the malleable nature of cartoon reality to brilliantly set up horror reveals, they’re just masterful examples of the medium writ large. And I don’t just mean animation, I mean film itself. This is the purest of cinema, manipulating form to create meaning. Still, it’s especially fitting for a horror short, with the carefully controlled and ultra-limited visual information playing (literally) into your fears of the dark. Without all the irritating limitations of reality, McGuire assumes total control of your senses, and knows exactly how to tease them with the implication of something spooky and then set them free to build their horrors in the murky subconsciousness, the one place even less beholden to reality than the illustrated image. It’s a thoroughly heady and immersive experience, equal parts shrewd visual delight and genuinely spooky nightmare.  

McGuire is the only one here who really hits a home run, but all things considered, FEAR(S) OF THE DARK still makes a powerful case for more animated horror. Alas, ten years later, I don’t see any forward movement towards taking up the baton. It seems like the advent of computer animation has made the process cheaper, but other than a few outliers (Ari Folman’s WALTZ WITH BASHIR and THE CONGRESS, Vincent Paronnaud / Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS, last year’s stop-motion ANOMALISA), we haven’t really seen a lot of money and talent go into making animated films for adult audiences, let alone adult genre films. Last year’s R-rated KILLING JOKE was so wretchedly amateurish as to be out-and-out insulting, and even the startlingly well-received SAUSAGE PARTY was obviously cutting corners behind the scenes, and seems to present itself more as an interesting novelty than an ambitious experiment in medium. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful. I know it’s not especially encouraging that it took even this reviewer a fucking decade to check out FEAR(S) OF THE DARK, but hey, a man can dream, right? Particularly as anime finds a larger and larger worldwide audience, I think there’s reason to imagine a generation of American adults who lack their parents’ prejudice against the perception of animation as an art form for children. And hell, with the proliferation of CG even in ostensibly “live action” films, the line is becoming increasingly blurred. A lot of the movies we watch now are already mostly animated, they’re just very realistically animated. Hopefully this review is the wake up call the world needs to start getting a bit more adventurous about the possibilities here.

Or, that failing, I’d at least like to put forward a public vote for FEAR(S) OF THE DARK 2: 2 FAST 2 FEARIOUS. There’s ample evidence from this one that animation is more than capable of mastering every element a good horror film needs… except, so far, the art of the franchise.

*Di Sciullo has a writing credit, but it’s not clear if this dialogue is scripted or improvised.   

Good Kill Hunting

Yes, particularly the (s) which implies it’s anthology time.
France, though some of the directors are from other countries
Anthology, Adult Animation, Body Horror
Maybe just a hint in the first segment
Weird bug, Spiders, Angry Alligator, moth, dogs
I think there’s definitely a ghost/ haunted house situation in the final segment.
Yes, though not of the usual variety
Well, there’s that unpleasant woman talking about her fears, possibly to a shrink?
Nothing specific that I recall
Grown men who like watching cartoons are very, very cool

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