Do anthology films ever completely work? As far back as the ambitious European efforts of four decades ago like Boccaccio ‘70 and Ro.Po.Pa.G., through 1995’s Four Rooms, I can’t think of a single instance of an anthology-style film that holds its own as a coherent work of art. And that, it could be argued, is the point. Trading overall quality for diversity, the anthology film offers the viewer a veritable smorgasbord of options, rather than a single, gourmet meal. So while you might luck out and arrive at the table just as they’re bringing out the lobster tails, you’ll probably have to suffer through some dodgy Swedish meatballs and less-than-appetizing tri-colored pasta salad before you can even get to it. In other words, when it comes to anthology films, please remember one thing: don’t fill up on bread. That’s how they get you.
Unfortunately, Fear(s) of the Dark is mostly bread. Joining the likes of Creepshow, Tales From the Dark Side: the Movie and Three…Extremes in the rarified world of the horror film anthology, Fear(s) stands out from the pack by being an animated film. Combining the talents of some of the world’s most interesting cartoonists and visual designers, I initially went into the screening with high hopes. Eighty-five minutes later, I left thinking that, while it wasn’t necessarily a waste of time, an opportunity had definitely been missed. But let’s start with what worked.
Richard Maguire is a well-respected designer of various book and magazine covers and semi-legendary in comics-nerd circles as the creator of the formally brilliant and frequently anthologized short story “Here.” (Seriously, read this one if you can find it. It’s amazing.) In the last and best segment of the film, Maguire’s stark, iconic, black-and-white images complement collaborator Michel Pirus’ rather clichéd lost-traveler-finds-refuge-in-haunted-house tale an immediacy and claustrophobic intensity that is at times scarily effective. All clean lines and negative space, Maguire’s minimal design sense serves the story perfectly, skillfully playing with light and shadow, only showing us what the increasingly desperate main character can see with his rapidly depleting supply of matches. There’s no dialogue in this piece, which adds to the genuinely chilling atmosphere. This is the one that will stay with me.
Less successful but still interesting is the effort by Charles Burns, easily one of the greatest cartoonists of all time. With his instantly recognizable style and consummate draftsmanship, Burns’ work has permeated the culture, despite how few non-comics fans recognize his name. Best known for his graphic novel magnum opus, Black Hole, Burns brings to this short animated story all of his usual concerns – EC-style horror, ’50s-era sci-fi, physical transformation and dark sexuality. It’s the story of an introverted young man who meets the girl of his dreams and winds up getting way more than he bargained for. Structured a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone, the segment delivers in the atmospheric and gross-out departments. But Burns’ style, which works great on the page, looks decidedly awkward in motion. His thick lines and sensuous black inks appear somehow stilted and stiff when animated, especially in facial movements.
The rest of the segments ranged from the instantly forgettable to the actively boring to the bizarrely misguided. This last category includes the segment by Pierre Di Sciullo, which consisted of a series of constantly morphing black-and-white shapes over which a French female narrator delivers a monologue about her fears. Pretentious and stupid.
Fear(s) of the Dark was an interesting experiment in the anthology film form and one that should get credit for being unique and ambitious. However, this one is strictly for rental. See it for the Maguire and Burns, but skip the bread.