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Fear(s) Of The Dark

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 10/29/08 09:57:28

"80% not-too-shabby, 20% unfortgettable."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASTIC FEST: A better showcase for its animation than it is for its horror, “Fear(s) of the Dark” (“Peur(s) du Noir”) offers one great cartoon and a whole bunch of so-so ones. The project, an anthology of terror-based animated shorts where the only key link is stark black-and-white imagery, is worth hunting down for that one great moment, but even the lesser bits offer some dazzling visuals that trump their otherwise iffy storytelling.

The film delivers four shorts and two recurring “bumper” pieces. As those clips are the least interesting of the lot, let’s discuss them first. In one, from French artist Blutch (what a name!), an aristocrat from long ago takes his killer hounds for a walk; one by one (one per “episode”), the dogs break free and kill innocent bystanders. The aristocrat is shocked at first, then amused, then downright pleased at the results. It’s an allegory with too shallow and vague a purpose - the upper class enjoying the demise of those beneath them - to truly hook the viewer, and Blutch’s penchant for unflinching violence (heightened by the raw impact of the simple charcoal drawings) is more of a turn-off than is probably intended.

The other recurring “bumper” presents an unexpected take on the film’s title: a woman (voiced by Nicole Garcia) lists the things she fears, and they’re not the stuff of horror cinema, but real-life terrors in the form of narcissistic upper-middle class nonsense about appearances and expectations. (She worries about being “irredeemably bourgeois.”) At first, the spin is cleverly sarcastic, but as the woman drones, and the satire grows redundant, the impact falls flat. Pierre di Sciullo provides random images - moving geometric shapes that bend and grow and twist and morph - over the monologue, and they’re fabulous examples of abstract animation, except as images, they could be playing over anything.

The first full short story is from Charles Burns, in which bookish Eric (Guillaume Depardieu) recounts his college romance with the lovely Laura (Aure Atika), who becomes more and more domineering as the relationship progresses, with shocking results. Had the characters been years younger, it’d be easy to call this tale a shrewd metaphor for adolescence - there’s a women-are-frighteningly-mysterious aspect to the relationship, and when Laura develops a strange cut on her arm (that coincides with her nasty behavior), this can be viewed as fear of our changing bodies. Older characters makes the analogy less clear; but then, maybe it’s nothing more than the story of a bad relationship with a creepy ending.

Marie Caillou then gives us an anime-influenced yarn about a young girl tormented by her classmates. Elements like the house haunted by an angry samurai or the cutaways to the girl in a mental ward, bursting awake from a nightmare, are too slapdash to make this a compelling short, although there is a fever dream quality that’s effectively unsettling.

Next up is Lorenzo Mattotti, who tells of an old town terrorized by a vicious beast that strikes at night. This plays more as childhood memoir than as spooky creature feature, and on that level, it works. The animation is lovely, and there’s a quaint tone - the adventure as seen through the eyes of a young boy - that works very well.

All of this leads to the centerpiece, from Richard McGuire. The story is simple: a man takes refuge from a blizzard by breaking into a remote cabin. Is the house haunted, or is the man just nervous in the dark?

The key to this short’s success is in McGuire’s inventive animation, which makes clever use of negative space . The black-and-white concept is followed quite literally; there are no grays here, only “cut-out” shapes of white against the blackness, revealing a face, a hand, a candle in the night. There is no dialogue, either, only grunts, which adds to the starkness of it all. The result is often terrifying, always amazing, and it’s enough to salvage what was otherwise an exercise in style over substance. McGuire’s short delivers both, and makes “Fear(s)” a winner all by itself.

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