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Fear(s) Of The Dark:

A Film Review

It’s been a long, if not hot, summer of American superhero comic-book blockbusters as Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Dark Knight and Hellboy II pile up one after the other. But now something a little more strange and unexpected from the comics medium hits our screens: a French-made feature taking original stories by some of the greatest American and French graphic novelists and making them into black-and-white animation. Fear(s) of the Dark gets its first UK screening this Saturday at Film 4 Fright Fest in London, but if you miss this, Comica at the ICA is hosting the next preview on September 8th, which I’ll be introducing. This will also be the first chance to pick up my new book with Peter Stanbury, The Leather Nun and Other Incredibly Strange Comics, which, by no coincidence, features a cool cover by Charles Burns. Here’s my review of Fear(s) from the September issue of deviant cinema magazine Electric Sheep, out September 4th. Fear(s) of the Dark is on general UK release from 3 October 2008.

Black-and-white seems to be the new colour when it comes to adult animated movies from France, especially those with a comics source or styling. Hot on the high heels of Marjane Satrapi who co-directed Persepolis from her autobiographical graphic novel, and Christian Volckman who put his future thriller Renaissance into motion-capture monochrome, comes Fear(s) of the Dark. This ensemble piece dares to allow leading innovators in French and American comics to transpose their motionless, soundless storyworlds to the animation medium.

The strong opener, Charles Burns, is the best known outside of France for his Black Hole saga, in development as a live-action film. His obsessions with the creeping unease of adolescence and uncontrollable bodily mutation resurface in his flashback about a timid biology student whose sweet first girlfriend changes after an insect bite into a terrifying sadist, overturning their male and female roles. Despite occasional awkwardness to the movements, it’s truly unsettling to experience Burns’ inhumanly precise outlines and saw-toothed feathering in motion and sound on the big screen.

The other American participant, Richard McGuire, closes the film with a display of his elegant minimalism, conveying a man stumbling around an isolated "old dark house", his silhouette sliding between shadows, his candle picking out hidden secrets.

Instead of these pure contrasts of chiaroscuro, three of the French-based teams opt for palettes of grey. Marie Caillou, with writer Romain Slocombe, take us into the disturbing memories of a bullied Japanese schoolgirl, driven by a samurai’s ghost to violence, the only flash of red in the film. Caillou’s greenish tones add a cold, clinical chill.

Italian-born Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky recall boyhood terrors about mysterious disappearances and an unseen monster. Mattotti’s evocative shading shimmers and shifts sublimely in this atmospheric, allusive folktale, tinged in sepia.

A fleshy pink infuses Blutch’s brushstrokes as a cruel squire unleashes his raging hounds, one by one, on the innocent, its closing twist something of a letdown.

Least successful are the interludes by typographer-designer Pierre di Sciullo who abstracts a woman’s confessions of fears great and small into symbolic geometric patterns.

Still, this is a haunting sextet of chillers, rich with such diverse, distinctive drawings emerging from that most fearful of dark places, the imagination.

Posted: August 23, 2008

This review originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine, devoted to offering a deviant view of cinema.

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Fear(s) Of The Dark

Blutch
Charles Burns
Marie Caillou
Pierre di Sciullo
Lorenzo Mattotti
Richard McGuire

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