As a cinematic rule of thumb, animation and horror do not go well together. Not that many have tried such a mix however, and with its wealth of invention and imagination possibilities, it seems odd that cartooning and the creepshow haven’t comfortably co-existed before. Maybe the right artists weren’t approached. Perhaps the studios who sell pen and ink to the public believe no fresh-faced family will sit through an example of hand-drawn dread. But again, since so few have actually made the effort, the verdict is still out on the craven combos possibility. Thanks to the French, and the fabulous anthology Fear(s) of the Dark (new to DVD from IFC Films), however, we get our first real glimpse at how the two genres would function collectively, and it’s an eerie, ethereal experience indeed.
Divided into sections, with some clever linking material in between, the five stories here (delivered by five different directors) each deal with a differing dynamic of terror. Filmmaker Butch brings us a glorious pencil to paper tale of a nobleman, his hounds from Hell, and the fatalistic fun he has with said pets. Charles Burns then gives us the story of Eric, his love of gathering insects, and his unearthly experience with a girlfriend named Laura. This is followed up by an Asian inspired saga from writer Roman Slocombe and director Marie Caillou. It centers on a young girl, a group of bullies, and the surreal spirit of a dead samurai. We then travel to a terrified township where people have been disappearing. Lorenzo Mattiotti gives us the details from the perspective of two young boys, one of which may know more than he lets on. Finally, a burly man breaks into a seemingly abandoned house, looking for shelter from a snow storm. Inside, he finds a sinister secret, and as Richard McGuire illustrates, a fate worse than the elements.
There is also an attempt by abstractionist Pierre Di Sovillo to deal with the essence of fear, his monochrome designs deconstructing audio only interviews with people as they admit their deepest phobias and apprehensions. Sometimes it succeeds, but more times than not, these otherwise obtuse images detract from the real macabre meat. In fact, much of Fear(s) of the Dark is so powerful, so solid in its scary movie statements, that we wonder why others haven’t been bothered to try this kind of project before. Right from the very start, as Butch’s bedeviled dogs snarl and growl with near demonic desire, we understand how animation can amplify fright. But it’s the moment when Burns pushes 3D CG to the point of perversion where we drop all pretense and get lost in the lingering terror.
Indeed, the unusual tale of love and locusts would probably seem silly if not for the artist’s well known style. The use of sharp, bold lines and simplistic, primal shapes creates an unsettling sense of heightened reality. Then, as the narrative plays out, we feel the impact of every plot twist, the spine-tingled truth behind every previously referenced act. Since it is rendered in black and white (all of the short films featured here use the same bi-color palette, with just a little ripe red bloodshed for added effect), there is a wonderful sense of old school schlock at play as well. It’s an approach that really works flawlessly for the rest of the segments as well.
Mattiotti makes wonderful use of it during his subtle tale of superstition and folklore gone gangrenous. As the narrator informs us of the various indistinct clues that seem to indicate a monster in the marshes, we get chilling imagery that suggests more than it shows. In fact, at a pivotal moment in the narrative, an important reveal is offered in a barely visible blurry design. Sensational! Things aren’t as understated in Caillou’s homage to Japanese ghost stories. The look is divine, but the plot is obvious in its revenge/payback ideals. We anticipate what happens with little suspense, allowing the lush application of Asian imagery as a means of making up for a lack of shock.
There is no need for such substitution with the last effort. McGuire’s classic dark house tale is masterful in its no frills approach to narrative. There is no dialogue, no voice over explaining what’s going on. As a lumbering ox of a man breaks into a secluded home, we see nothing except what the available light illuminates. It’s all eyes, odd angles, statements in silhouette, glimpsed deviousness, and subtle suggestion. As the layers build, as we learn about the building’s history, about the person who presumably still lives there, and the terrifying truth of our protagonist’s fate, we keep waiting for the other shocking shoe to drop…and wait…and wait…and wait…
If this DVD presentation from IFC films has a failing – and it’s a minor, non-feature film misstep at best – it’s in the inability to hear the creators speak for themselves. The extras consist of material that comments on the project (an art exhibit of some of the drawings) or discusses the basic nuts and bolts of the process (like how Burn’s images where turned into 3D shapes for computer manipulation). What Fear(s) of the Dark really needed was a collection of commentary tracks, or at the very least, interviews which would allow the artists to explain their ideas and judge the final product. Without said content, we feel like we’re missing something integral to this unusual (and otherwise masterful) marriage.
Still, the resulting feature is fabulous, a true integration of one artform into another. Fear(s) of the Dark should put to rest once and for all any qualms about mixing animation with angst. In fact, with the recent renaissance in CG titles, one could easily see someone like Pixar picking up the bedeviled ball and running with it. Considering their current track record, the possibilities literally boggle the mind. Still, just because a chosen few can make the concept work does mean it’s a universally applicable standard. Fear(s) of the Dark is special because of its rareness and singularity. Once horror and cartooning establish a norm, we will see what sort of benchmark it truly is/was.