The French omnibus horror film “Fear(s) in the Dark” comes off a bit as a cataract of gimmicks — fully animated, using comic artists with distinctive styles, no color allowed (well, a little red to pepper up the black and white palette) and focused on phobias and anxieties. Omnibus films, with which we are suddenly surrounded (Paris this, New York that), are gimmicks themselves, not much like anthologies, because you can’t roam at will. Their viewing experiences are predicated on variety instead of consistency, and the often fizzling impact of clumped shorts, each more or less the total sum, which is too often shruggable itself.
But “Fear(s)” is a hypnotic cocktail, and its key liquor may be Frenchness — some of the materials folded in have no sensible conclusion (the fear of “Tales from the Crypt” moralism is unavoidable), and some aren’t stories at all. Some stand entire and alone, while others are spliced into suggestive chapters; there’s no mandate to be extreme, or to be obvious. Mostly, the individual artists aren’t even intent on inflicting a reaction upon the viewer, but instead on taking obsessive care about the light and shape of their particular world. The upshot is disarmingly grown-up, but also, at times, a creepy freakout.
I knew Charles Burns’ work, of course, and I remember Richard McGuire from “Raw,” but only Euro-graphic-novel readers would otherwise be familiar with Blutch, Lorenzo Mattotti, Pierre di Sciullo and Marie Caillou, whose pieces range from pseudo-digi-anime to charcoal Gothic hysteria to abstracted shape-making. It hardly matters — the restless textures and visual eloquence are seductive in a way that, I think, has something to do with basic movieness. Our capacity to be fascinated by animated movement, which is like an enveloping morph between puppet theater and painting, is bottomless, from Ladislaw Starewicz to Disney to Borowczyk to Larry Jordan to the Quays to Oshii to Pixar. It’s not just a matter of distinctive style, but also how much animated images can evoke the physics of reality (when done properly) while still maintaining an uncanny otherworldliness — there’s just nothing like it anywhere else in human culture.
McGuire’s climactic hunk of “Fear(s)” is a prime example — narratively, it’s just a man-in-a-haunted-house scenario, but texturally, it’s a relentlessly inventive and evocative tango between huge blocks of blackness and what little sprays of light the unnamed hero’s candle affords him. It builds anxiety, “Blair Witch”-like, by way of what we cannot see, and pivots on a spellbinding tour through a found photo album hilariously suggesting the house’s poisoned history, but the real show is in the recreation of vision and shadow, utterly convincing and yet a cartoon.
There are individual moments of glory, as you’d expect: Caillou’s Miyazaki-on-arsenic nightmare has inspired flights worthy of “Porky in Wackyland,” Blutch’s ashen dog-hunt tableaux feeds our unease while never coalescing into the convenience of a narrative, and Burns’ “Twilight Zone”-ish entomological romance definitely benefits from his sharp, grayless retro-modernist drawing style. But altogether, “Fear(s)” is a witty experiment, and it plays not like an omnibus at all, or a DVD collection of shorts, or anything really but itself — a lovely suite of dark thoughts.