Fear(s) of the Dark Review
Marjane Satrapi’s animated version of her own graphic novel Persepolis, showed that the original creation of a comic artist could be successfully translated to the screen in a manner that would retain the individual qualities that made it attractive in the first place, something that French animation had so far failed to achieve despite the unquestionable wealth of its bandes dessinées talent. The success of Persepolis however has undoubtedly opened the door for other underground artists in the medium who don’t fit the standard animation template either in terms of their distinctive drawing styles or their often dark and personal themes. With contributions from some of the most distinguished comics artists in the world today - not just from France, but from elsewhere in Europe and the USA - Fear(s) of the Dark’s compendium of quiet, menacing horror stories would seem to offer an excellent opportunity to further showcase that talent.
And indeed, there’s little to fault with the execution of the work. Each of the films in Fear(s) of the Dark - some standing alone, others overlapping and broken down into chapters that haunt like recurring nightmares - accurately finds a means of retaining the distinctive characteristics of each of its artists as well as finding a thematic connection between them. Blutch’s dark, expressive charcoal-like swirls creates a landscape out of Edvard Munch where, like one of Goya’s Black Paintings come to life, a group of hounds straining on leashes are set loose on individuals by a demonic man in an 18th century greatcoat. The familiar subject matter of US artist Charles Burns also works surprisingly well, his unsettling thick clear line work taking on an appropriately eerie character when smoothly animated through 3-D compositing. Like his most famous work Black Hole that theme here is one of dark, repressed adolescent sexual desires and fears of death and disease spreading as insects from dark bodily orifices, and it’s effectively voiced and narrated by the late Guillaume Depardieu.
Marie Caillou’s South Park-style Flash animation with its cute Japanese characters would seem to be inappropriate for dark horror, but the story of Sumako, a new girl at school tormented by her schoolmates and haunted by the ghost of a samurai buried in the cemetery near her house manages to accumulate a nightmarish sense of mounting fear and deep trauma, even if it is quite reliant on ghost imagery from traditional Japanese folktales. The modern Italian master Lorenzo Mattotti’s expressionism arguably works best in colour, but here in black-and-white his bloated figures, sketchy billowing atmospheric landscapes and the curvatures of his architecture benefit not so much from movement and sound, but for having the space to expand, pan and pull-out from close-ups to wide shots. The French nouveau-crooner Arthur H. makes for a terrific narrator in an otherwise conventional tale of a mysterious monster haunting the swamps and terrorising the locals, several of whom are never seen again.
Being familiar with the work of Charles Burns, Blutch and Lorenzo Mattotti prior to viewing this film, it’s clear that their work has been very successfully and faithfully translated to the screen as new works while retaining the essential character of their creators. Those dark characteristics, textures and the fluidity with which they work however already exists on the page and it doesn’t particularly gain any new dimension even with the addition of sound and movement - certainly not to the extent that Satrapi’s work, with the assistance of Vincent Paronnaud, came to life in Persepolis. Only Richard McGuire’s work, the last segment of the film, really seems to take advantage of the animation medium and make the most effective use of the monochrome colouration. Rather than seeing it as a means to adapt a story that would work just as effectively on the page, McGuire’s piece, taking the film’s title at its most literal, exploits those fears of the dark through a figure trapped in a haunted house, using sounds, suspense and revelations through partially illuminating shafts of light.
The success of this final story ends the film most effectively, but it does however highlight the failings of Fear(s) of the Dark elsewhere, showing the film to have neither the coherence or drive to work as a feature-length animation. It certainly functions as an impressive showcase for Burns, Blutch, Caillou and Mattotti, whose work, even if it doesn’t gain any new dimension through animation, doesn’t lose anything either. The problem however is the fact that, McGuire excepted, none of the films bring anything new to the horror medium or are even really all that scary (least of all the interlinking segments of animated geometric shapes by Pierre Di Sciullo featuring a narration by Nicole Garcia of rather more prosaic social “fears” narrated by a hand-wringing bourgeois female). And it’s more than a slight distance and coolness to the tone in each of the pieces that fails to implicate the viewer in the worlds depicted, rather a tendency to be over-elaborate in their attempts to create horror almost solely through the textures of their work. Richard McGuire’s piece then, by making full use of those black screens and sounds, highlights the key element of horror that the others have failed to grasp - one clearly specified in the film’s title - which is that it’s the imagination of the viewer that is the most effective means of exploiting the fear of the dark and the unknown that lies within it.
Fear(s) of the Dark (Peur(s) du noir) is released on DVD in the UK by Metrodome. The dual-layer DVD is in PAL format, and encoded for Region 2.
The video transfer is truly exceptional, handling the textures of the animation and its movement extremely well. Presented anamorphically at 1.75:1, the image flows beautifully, with smooth transitions and no troublesome interlacing. A freeze-frame at any point in the film will reveal a flawless and beautiful still image, with only a hint of shimmer unavoidably occurring in pans of Charles Burns’s thick cross-hatchings. Handling of blacks is of paramount concern and they are deep, dark and solid. An effective representation is key to the animation being effective and Metrodome have accordingly given the film a simply outstanding transfer.
Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are included, both retaining the original French soundtrack. No dubs are provided. Both tracks are strong, certainly have volume and punch where required, but the tone lacks naturalism and warmth, which is not unexpected in an animated film. The sound alone at the end of the Blutch episode however is utterly revolting and horrific in and of itself, so the soundtrack certainly conveys the desired impact.
English subtitles are provided in a bold white font with only a thin border, but it fits in well and can easily be read against the black-and-white animation.
Charles Burns: At The Witchery (26:49)
Interviewed while in Edinburgh in 2008, promoting the publication of the collected Black Hole, Burns talks about the experience of taking his work into a new medium and working collaboratively for Fear(s) in the Dark. He talks about the themes in his piece and how they relate to his wider work, particularly in his major work Black Hole (currently optioned for a film by either Alejandro Aja or David Fincher).
The Making of Fear(s) of the Dark (24:19)
A superb extra feature, this shows the creation of each individual section from synopsis and storyboard through animatics to finished production. In between there are some nice details, character designs, reference drawings and background, some footage of voice recording and even the creators themselves getting involved doing their own movements for reference guides or voice-overs for the animatics.
Stills Gallery (2:08)
A slideshow runs through a selection of reference drawings and production stills.
Creative Personnel Biographies
Information on the backgrounds and careers of each of the writers, artists and directors is included.
UK Theatrical Trailer (0:43)
The trailer, presented anamorphically look fabulous and is an effective teaser for the film.
There’s no doubting the ability of the artists gathered here and the skill with which their work is animated on the screen, but the smooth black-and-white drawing and style of the majority of the individual pieces lack the grittiness, pace and tension that the horror medium demands, with only Richard McGuire’s piece really exploiting the qualities of the medium and stretching the imagination of the viewer. If Fear(s) of the Dark doesn’t work particularly well as a feature film or even work all that well under its horror theme, it is at least a fine showcase of individual talents in a short film compendium. Should there ever be a second compilation in the near future - and the merits of the film are strong enough to indicate that it could be a possibility - may I suggest Thomas Ott, David B. and Richard Sala as other artists well suited to the genre and perhaps capable of bringing something new to the medium. Metrodome’s presentation of the film on DVD is superb, with a flawless transfer and good supporting features.