Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fear(s) of the Dark

by Chuck Williamson

Thomas Schatz’s contentious theory of generic evolution provides a coherent, holistic—and ultimately reductive—method of analyzing and taxonomizing popular cinematic genres. These classifications rely on what Schatz refers to as a “system of conventions” that characterize and define each generic mode, thus providing a methodology that allows the entire trajectory of a single genre to be traced in linear genealogical thread. The horror genre, in particular, contains specific narrative and iconographic elements specific to this abstract umbrella-term. Yet as I watched the black-and-white animated horror anthology Fear(s) of the Dark, I suddenly recognized the limitations of genre theory—specifically, the way the construct of “genre” has been muddled in an age of mass consumption, mass communication, and internationalism. Unlike the archival horror classics we familiarize ourselves with every Halloween—from creaky studio “creature features” to sleazy exploitation fare—Fear(s) operates outside the boundaries of this rigid genealogy. Whereas these past films borrowed heavily from classic gothic fiction, E.C. comic book anthologies, and macabre pulp fiction, Fear(s) pulls from an entirely different set of referents—particularly the thriving vanguard of American, French, and Japanese graphic fictions that have, until now, rarely found an adequate cinematic counterpart. Because of these deviations, Fear(s) of the Dark represents an original piece of pop entertainment in a genre now burned with a derivative assembly line of genre stinkers.

Of course, not all substructures of the horror genre get reconfigured in Fear(s)’s appropriation of these generic mechanisms. Directed by six independent graphic artists, Fear(s) follows the basic anthology format culled from its precursors, presenting a collection of loosely intertwined tales of terror that literalize the sort of psychic and social phobias ripe for the horror treatment. Transnational by design, the selection of artists employed in the film represents a sort of “who’s who” of contemporary sequential art and graphic design. And as with any omnibus film, some vignettes work better than others—and the quality here remains as variable as it would be in an issue of, say, Art Spiegelman’s Raw or Fantagraphics’ Mome. Black Hole novelist Charles Burns and graphic designer and Liquid Liquid bassist Richard McGuire direct the film’s two best vignettes, with the former helming a psychosexual body horror narrative of teenage love, sadomasochistic fetishization, and insectoid impregnation, and the latter opting for a more traditional haunted house narrative filled with inky shadows, atmospheric grays, and sparse noir lighting. Burns’ segment revisits the Cronenbergian mutations that characterized his aforementioned graphic novel, where biological metamorphoses and deformities function as metaphorical representations of the psychic cost of lost love, hard sex, and the pains of adolescence. Filled with pain, longing, and bodily mutations, this vignette stands between the divide of the romantic and the grotesque, delivering a caustic final image of a loveless romance taken to its gruesome metaphorical extremes. McGuire’s piece, on the other hand, shies away from these grotesqueries in favor of pure atmosphere—impenetrable shadows, harsh lighting, pregnant silences. The cumulative effect is shocking, as these techniques enhance a somewhat clichéd story of a murderous housewife and a silent drifter.

The rest, unfortunately, are less successful. Belgian artist Marie Caillou directs the disjointed dream narrative of a school girl entangled in the phantasmagoric world of Japanese ghostlore (or is she?), which unfortunately devolves into an scrambled hodgepodge of eastern supernatural ephemera: spectral samurai, shapeshifting bakemono, serial killing school children, mad scientists, dream-vs.-reality canards, etcetera, etcetera. Nullified by its staccato pacing and jumbled narrative threads, this piece comes across as nothing more than a visually arresting—albeit convoluted—catalogue of overused J-horror tropes. Italian graphic novelist Lorenzo Mattoti does better with his own exploration of adolescent horrors—a slow burn story of a parochial village menaced by a ravenous beast that may or may not be the protagonist’s best friend. While its frame narrative punctures the suspense somewhat, this piece successfully conveys the terror of childhood in its bold, scratchy art and pained mediations on growing up,
where an unseen monster represents the impenetrable fog that clouds childhood. Interspersing these longer tales are Pierre di Scullo’s abstract, cubist vignettes of mutating geometric shapes—a rorsharch test for terror—overlaid with a running dialogue on the nature of fear, and Blutch’s primal, silent story of an eighteenth-century nobleman and his savage attack dogs. Both are visually intoxicating, but seem truncated and incomplete in the context of the film.

Even at its worst, Fear(s) is a sumptuous visual feast, featuring the diverse black-and-white graphic art of each creator. Burns’ photorealist E.C.-standard cum ecroche style contrasts the subtle surrealism of his story, McGuire’s geometric designs and moody lighting intensify his segment’s atmosphere, and Mattoti’s jittery, nightmarish pencilwork recalls the work of Francis Bacon. Even Calineascu’s piece features enough bug-eyed, Ghibli-inspired charm to compensate for its narrative shortcomings. But, more importantly, the film assists in the restructuring of our basic understanding of film genre. While never “making it new” in a tangible or all-encompassing sense, Fear(s) seems determined to alter what Schatz calls the “grammar” of cinematic genre. Schatz contends that “we might think of the film genre as a specific grammar or system of rules of expression and construction and the individual genre film as a manifestation of these rules.” In Fear(s), the fundamental grammar of horror is changed to simulate the mechanics of the source material. Whereas most horror films rely on fluidity and motion to stimulate fright, this film defies these conventions with jagged rhythms and static tableaus—the sort one might find in graphic fiction. Instead of the conventional handbag of shock effects systemic to the grammar of horror, Fear(s) regularly features unnerving pauses, understated silence, and an added emphasis on composition and symmetry. For all of its flaws, Fear(s) of the Dark successfully integrates the language of contemporary sequential art into the world of horror.


Brandon Colvin said...

This sounds incredible!

How did you see it?

Chuck W said...

It was playing in Louisville and Lextington, for a short while. In all honesty, I had hoped it would adopt the distribution model of many foreign horror films -- start off small, and expand into a more mainstream market. Alas, I don't think it made enough money to get that sort of treatment.

As for how I saw it... ahem... I actually got lazy and watched in on IFC's on-demand service.

Ed Howard said...

Great write-up! I agree with you about the film's relative strengths and weaknesses. McGuire, always an arch-formalist genius, unsurprisingly does the best work by simultaneously fulfilling and toying with genre expectations, and Burns' segment is as much gruesome fun as you'd expect from the author of Black Hole. Caillou's was the only one I didn't really like though. It's a shame the film didn't get more attention, I managed to catch it during a very brief run in New York back in March.

Unknown said...

1-Great review, Chuck! I'm excited to see this.
2-This is very, very randomly coming to my theater next week. So if anyone wants to see it badly enough, come to Ohio...

Chuck W said...

Ed - Thanks! I'm actually a little surprised it did such poor business, considering both its novelity and the popularity of international horror. Hopefully, it'll find a new life on video. At any rate--thanks for reading. :)

Jacob - That's insane. Maybe it is widening its release--with luck, it might even be getting its second wind. Hope you enjoy it. And thanks for reading, of course.