Call it the Persepolis effect.
Critically acclaimed internationally, Marjane Satrapi’s lyrical adaptation of her graphic novel of the same name has finally made the world (or, rather, the American market) safe for European, black-and-white animated films by alt-cartoonists. But while Satrapi chronicled the horrors of growing up during the Iran-Iraq War, Fear(s) of the Dark is more concerned with exploring existential dread.
Fear(s) is an anthology of several unconnected vignettes, each conceived and directed by a different artist. Anthologies are nothing new in the world of comix, but the anthology film can be a chore to sit through — especially when a particular segment falls flat. Luckily, Fear(s) boasts some of today’s top graphic storytellers, including American cartoonist Charles Burns (whose stellar Black Hole will soon get the Hollywood treatment — shudder), French master illustrator Blutch, illustrator Marie Calliou, and animator Richard McGuire, to name a few. Each artist utilizes a completely unique art style, and though some stories are less satisfying than others, none are visually dull.
While narratively unrelated, each story is centered around themes of fear, isolation, and cruelty, and most of the major phobias are represented — sometimes subliminally — to ensure maximum creepiness. The first cringe-inducing (yet beautifully charcoal-rendered) entry, by Blutch, features a sadistic aristocrat leading a pack of snarling, vicious dogs on a hunt for innocent victims. Calliou, who’s big in Japan, follows young Sumako as she copes with both a traumatizing attack by her new schoolmates and the threatening ghost of an evil samurai. McGuire’s section is a textbook example of effective use of negative space (Frank Miller should take notes). Only the white face and hands of our protagonist — a man who stumbles into a haunted house during a blizzard — are visible against the jet-black screen, and the impressive sound design fills in the rest.
Burns’ contribution, my personal favorite, spins what could be a standard Twilight Zone plot into a darkly comic examination of relationship decay. Socially inept science nerd Eric can’t believe his luck when he finally lands a girlfriend, but he soon learns the hard way that sex changes everything — especially when the mysterious, vaginal-looking cut on her arm sprouts a phallic, insect-like appendage soon after they do the deed. The peril of sex is a recurring theme for Burns, who has a habit of giving his characters symbolic deformities to illustrate their inner qualities (the teens of Black Hole contract an STD called “the bug,” which turns them into hideous mutants).
Poetic symbolism is about as frightening as it gets in Fear(s) of the Dark, which doesn’t really inspire much actual fear (though the magnitude of artistic talent involved can be downright scary). Ultimately, Fear(s) is more psychological than psycho-killer. If you’re expecting Saw VI, you’re at the wrong movie ... although, if it’s any consolation, I did count at least four decapitated heads. •